Archive for the 'teaching' Category

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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William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.

Rupert Brooke: These I have loved

July 25, 2018

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;
And radiant raindrops couching in cool flowers;
And flowers themselves, that sway through sunny hours,
Dreaming of moths that drink them under the moon;
Then, the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss
Of blankets; grainy wood; live hair that is
Shining and free; blue-massing clouds; the keen
Unpassioned beauty of a great machine;
The benison of hot water; furs to touch;
The good smell of old clothes; and other such —
The comfortable smell of friendly fingers,
Hair’s fragrance, and the musty reek that lingers
About dead leaves and last year’s ferns. . . .
Dear names,
And thousand other throng to me! Royal flames;
Sweet water’s dimpling laugh from tap or spring;
Holes in the ground; and voices that do sing;
Voices in laughter, too; and body’s pain,
Soon turned to peace; and the deep-panting train;
Firm sands; the little dulling edge of foam
That browns and dwindles as the wave goes home;
And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass; —
All these have been my loves.

 

A moment of epiphany here, as I looked for the text of this poem I’ve liked for years, to use in this post. It’s actually part of a longer work… and I never knew! However, this is the part I have known and used, and which I shall focus on. I don’t know where I came across it first, although it was long ago, at the start of my teaching career, and I always used it as a way in to offering my students the possibility of trying to write poetry. This was always a very fraught task, if you think about it, poetry being so personal as well as something many students seem to have an automatic aversion to; I also had grave reservations about trying to ‘teach’ students to write poetry anyway…

But, Brooke’s poem offers a way in. In this part of his poem, he focuses on many, totally unconnected things which have given him fleeting moments of sensory pleasure; we all have these, and it was relatively easy for students to understand what Brooke was on about; even if his particular pleasures left them cold, they could name plenty of their own, and were usually ready to. Then, invited to focus more deliberately on each of their five senses and make lists of them, it was a straightforward enough step for most to see how that exercise could lead them into a similar poem of their own; prodding them to think carefully about exactly the right words they needed to characterise their particular pleasure came next… I was regularly very surprised and pleased by the number of good poems they produced, imitative or not. And there was a box ticked (if I needed to tick one) as well as a classroom display for a while.

Brooke’s poem works quite simply, it seems to me: it’s a list – the final line of the section I’ve quoted makes that clear – there are items that pleasurably stimulate each of his five senses, randomly thrown together (?) or perhaps linked by some association in Brooke’s mind. Each item is briefly listed, characterised in a few words, and then Brooke is on to the next one, so there is a democracy of sorts here: no one sensation is prioritised, better than others. And the impressions are fleeting: this I feel is most important, as we understand that oh so brief buzz of pleasure from one of the little things that momentarily please us. The skill (the art?) is in the choice of words to describe each sensation: the strong crust of friendly bread, the cool kindliness of sheets, the cold graveness of iron… and I remember that the better poems my students produced also managed to find just the right words to convey their sensations.

It’s not a stunning poem, but it’s a good one, one I have never forgotten, and one that does a thing that a good poet always does: make me look at something in a new way, one that I wouldn’t have found for myself (because I’m not a poet).

Thoughts of a somewhat reluctant teacher

July 11, 2018

As I grow older, anniversaries become ever more lapidary; this afternoon I realised with a shock that it was 40 years since I gained my PGCE. It was always going to be teaching or journalism; I can still recall the careers’ advisor’s face after she had tentatively suggested advertising and I’d told her all advertising was immoral… and teaching seemed like a more secure prospect than journalism.

Training at the long-gone or renamed CF Mott College at Prescott on Merseyside was interesting: I really enjoyed the theoretical side of teaching and the child development and psychology, found the English tutor’s input unbelievably dull and patronising, and my French was rather better than the French tutor’s, so I was mercifully spared the sessions in the language laboratory (some of my readers may need to look that up). One of my training schools was on three sites in Everton; after I’d finished five weeks of teaching a year seven class French – or attempting to – I was taken aback when a girl came up to me and asked, in the broadest of scouse accents, “Sir, can you speak French? Say something in French to me…’ My main training school had separate-gender staff-rooms (!) and, after I’d asked an awkward year ten boy to step outside the classroom temporarily and gone back a few minutes later to find him gone, to be told at break by the deputy head, ‘I took that boy off and thrashed him for you!’ I vowed not to do that again. When it was suggested I apply for a post at one of the top private schools in Cambridge, I realised I wasn’t ready for this lark just yet. I was still a hippy, and instead went off to do an MA and then an MPhil, which I enjoyed immensely.

It was nearly five years later, in the darkest days of Thatcherism, after I’d had enough of living on benefits, that I decided to cash in on my qualification and work as a supply teacher. Having taken on board the interviewer’s suggestion that ironing my shirts would be a good idea (!) I did my probationary year as a supply teacher in Hackney, breaking up more fights than I ever had to do afterwards, and scotching a year eleven boy’s attempt to burn down the classroom by throwing lighted matches into lockers… The money was good, and a year and five schools later, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham Boys’ School head-hunted me from ILEA’s lists as an English teacher, and I never looked back, spending a year and a half there under an inspirational Head of English.

What changed? I realised I could communicate my subject – after this time as an English teacher, my French never got a look in again – and my love for it, pretty effectively, and that speaking and listening was an aspect I was particularly strong in, as well as its being one which was only just coming to the fore in terms of both classroom and examination. I also realised that I worked far more effectively with brighter and more able students, and so that’s the track my career followed. I liked the edginess of the classroom, and the liveliness of discussion that was possible once the right boundaries had been agreed. Nothing was off-limits.

Having re-located to Yorkshire, I enjoyed six stimulating years at Harrogate Grammar School, under another wonderful Head of Department who allowed me to work to my strengths, and then went off to Ripon Grammar to run the English Department there for the rest of my career. And now I’m history: as of last summer, there were no students at the school who would have been taught by me…

So I was a reluctant teacher in some ways, and perhaps coming to the profession in my late rather than my early twenties made things easier, particularly in terms of establishing the right kind of distance between me and my students. I’d also had time to do a counselling training course, which was invaluable in so many situations throughout my career when dealing with difficult situations and students in need of advice and support.

I do have a lot of happy memories, of many students and teaching colleagues, some of whom I’m still in touch with. As a career it was a tough and demanding one – I have no patience with anyone whose opening gambit is along the lines of ‘oh, all those holidays!’ – but a very satisfying one, because of having played a part in shaping future generations, and sharing my love of my subject. I wouldn’t have done anything else: I made the right choice all those years ago.

R C Sherriff: Journey’s End

March 17, 2018

 

41vyJGXwb4L._AC_US218_It struck me that it’s a century since the start of the final German offensive of spring 1918, and consequently of the events R C Sherriff dramatised in his play Journey’s End, which I taught to more GCSE English Literature groups than I can remember…

It’s a very simple play, in many ways; a small troop of officers and soldiers holds a small section of the front line somewhere near St Quentin. We get to know them; they have to make a raid on the German lines to gain information, lose an officer and some men; the German offensive begins, and they are wiped out.

Sherriff was on the Western Front, and his experiences make the play ring true. The play was a sell-out in 1929 when it was first performed, and the novelisation of the play was a best-seller, although it’s now long been out-of-print. So how did Sherriff succeed?

At a time when most people in Britain would have a family member who had served, been injured or killed in the war, there was clearly an enormous amount of knowledge about and experience of the war, some of which had been shared with family members and some which had been deeply buried as ex-combatants sought to forget. The grotty conditions of trench-life, and little attempts to make it bearable, are there; humour is injected in small doses by Mason, the officers’ cook. The cameraderie of shared discomfort, when men who don’t know each other but are forced into intimacy by conditions, convinces. And the meaninglessness of the conflict is underlined – not through Sherriff’s desire to spread any kind of pacifist message, though after four years of war this might be understandable – by the isolation of the small group. They are somewhere on the front line; there are other companies alongside them; battalion HQ is somewhere, but they are disconnected from all that, somehow, anonymous and annihilated, and the audience is forced to ask ‘why?’…

Sherriff’s greatest success comes from his careful creation of a small group of officers, and the interplay between them; he clearly had a good eye to what would make effective theatre. Commanding the company is Stanhope, a young officer who has been in France for four years, is clearly very effective in his role but who has turned increasingly to heavy drinking to be able to cope with the horrors of what he’s involved in; his second is a schoolmaster in his forties, Osborne, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle’ by his fellows, and who seems to survive by talking with everyone, being friendly and offering fatherly advice. He has a wife and small son back home, is chosen to lead the raid on the German lines and knows it means almost certain death, but does his duty – and is blown to bits by a German grenade. Trotter is the only officer who is working class, and has clearly risen up through the ranks unlike the others; his interests and attitudes provide a contrast, and he clearly enjoys eating and drinking; after Osborne’s death he becomes second-in-command and focuses on doing his duty. Hibbert is a coward or malingerer or suffering from shell-shock depending on your point of view, and Stanhope’s efforts are concentrated on preventing him going sick just before the German offensive. Everything is complicated by the arrival of a young replacement officer fresh out of training – Raleigh – who went to the same public school as Stanhope, who was his hero. Will Stanhope stand up to the image he formerly had? And, of course, through Raleigh, Sherriff teaches the audience about the routines of life in the trenches…

An enormous amount is crammed into the ‘two-hours traffic of our stage’; much quiet, calm and waiting; shared conversation, reminiscence and genuine friendship; swift and sudden action; the crassness of the higher ranks comes across through the figure of the Colonel who arranges the raid, and the raid itself, which cannot, of course, be re-created onstage, is instead brought to life through sound and light effects. We are fully involved in the life and death of these few men from start to finish, and the closing moments are truly powerful.

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

February 18, 2018

411nnDMdwyL._AC_US218_This is another of Shakespeare’s plays that I haven’t been back to since I retired. I’ve seen a couple of very good performances in the past, though I don’t remember a great deal about them, so it will be interesting to see what the RSC do with the play when I see it in May.

Romeo and Juliet is a play I always enjoyed teaching in school, and always found appropriate at GCSE level; it was a bit more difficult when – back in the dim and distant past – it was set for the SAT tests of loathed memory, because some of the humour was tricky to explain to 13 year-olds. But the subject-matter – young love – and the vulgarity, bawdiness or obscenity of the group of lads who are Romeo’s mates, call it what you like, went down well with classes a couple of years older. It was realistic in terms of how young people often talked and joked, and I firmly believe it’s not a teacher’s job to censor: whatever needed explaining was explained and I would laugh along with the class. There is a fine line, though, between clarifying, and dwelling unnecessarily on the obscene…

Several things struck me with this re-reading, particularly the development in Shakespeare’s work in the dozen or so years between the first performances of Romeo and Juliet and his later love tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which I’m currently writing about. Compared with the latter play, Romeo and Juliet can feel rather primitive, with its several prologues prefiguring each act, what feels like excessive use of rhyme, a certain lack of subtlety in some of the characterisation, and all the over-the-top wailing and moaning by the Nurse…

These are two love tragedies worth seeing alongside one another, though: young lovers and mature lovers; both pairs die, tragically, because they feel they have nothing left to live for; the teenagers are totally wrapped up in themselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world, but the older lovers are plagued by the interference of the outside world whichever way they turn. Young lovers swear sincere and undying love to each other, the mature ones play games with each other, go astray, but come back to each other in the end. Comparisons are endless, and perhaps enlighten our own experiences.

I find both plays utterly convincing in their totally different ways, and, of course, I shall call this another illustration of the dramatist’s genius. The passion, the haste, the exclusion of the outside world in the love of Romeo and Juliet perhaps reflects some of Shakespeare’s own life experience, which we know almost nothing about… and for me the crudity of the lads’ sexual banter – Mercutio and Benvolio particularly – creates the atmosphere that allows the youthful but definitely sexual passion of Romeo and Juliet to convince an audience (before we remember the boy actor who would have played Juliet, perhaps). My classes all seemed to enjoy studying the play and working out who was to blame for the tragedy – parents, usually, so no surprise there – and I found myself gradually growing to like Baz Luhrmann‘s film (which I initially loathed) for its fidelity to the original dramatist’s intentions. I’m looking forward to seeing the play again.

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…

On being lost for words…

August 15, 2017

I’m not often left speechless, but I was yesterday evening, as I did my final catch-up on the day’s news online, before bed. I came across a story reporting that a professor of English Literature at the University of London had decided to remove John Cleland‘s novel Fanny Hill from a course on seventeenth and eighteenth century libertine literature which she had taught for years, on the ground that it might upset students…

I really don’t know where to start. If it’s a course on libertine literature, what sort of texts do you expect to meet? And surely it can’t be a compulsory course, so why have you chosen to do it? If you are at university to study literature, what were you expecting to be reading – Winnie the Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine? Are you not up to being challenged, to being expected to read books you may not like, even books that you may actually dislike? A university course is usually put together carefully, with a specific aim in mind and a corresponding reading-list to suit the purpose.

I never met this issue at school myself, either as a student or as a teacher. I read disturbing and challenging books whilst in the sixth form: my English teacher handed us Hubert Selby‘s Last Exit to Brooklyn, among other things. I’m not sure I got it completely at the tender age of seventeen, but I read it, marvelled that people actually wrote like that and about those sorts of things, and came back to it when I was a bit older and a little more worldly-wise. And it was round about then that I read Cleland’s novel, too. I enjoyed it, as many teenage males would at that age; it made me think that a man should write such a book, purporting to be by a woman, and it certainly reinforced the notion that women had a right to sexual pleasure. I know that I wasn’t aware of a whole range of subtexts and broader issues that the book raised, but it was a start.

When teaching, I worked on all sorts of potentially upsetting texts with students: all that literature about the First World War, for starters. And what about all the horrible stuff that goes on in Shakespeare’s plays (back to the article that has triggered this rant – apparently a student had been ‘upset’ by King Lear, the death of Cordelia and the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes…)? I always felt that one had a ‘duty of care’ in my situation, i.e. to warn students that something a bit strong or violent was coming up, but these were school students, often not even at a stage where they could be choosing what they studied…

I’ve tried, and failed, at least three times, to get to the end of Nabokov‘s Lolita. Various people have recommended it to me, including students of mine, and I’ve give it my best efforts, but I have found it so toe-curling that I have been unable to get beyond the first third or so. If I’d been asked to read it as part of a university course, I’d have made myself do it, and delivered my opinions in the seminar. But when it’s optional, as it has been, I don’t have to read it.

I’ve said many times before in these pages that good literature is meant to challenge, to make us think. The world is a nasty place in many ways, full of violence, certainly, but also increasingly sexualised (and I make no judgement on whether that is a good or bad thing here) and young people of university age have long had access via the internet to all sorts of horrendous violence and pornography if they chose to view it. Literature reflects our world, showing us the goodness and the evil in ourselves and those around us. It’s perfectly possible to avoid literature and what it presents, and the issues it rubs our faces in, if one is afraid of being upset. In which case, don’t go off to university to study it…

On practical criticism

August 10, 2017

Some recent posts about poetry by a fellow-blogger have reminded how much I miss teaching practical criticism. Back in the old days, before the exam boards started messing about with A level English Literature, at the end of the two-year course one of the papers students had to sit was an unseen paper in which they were faced by two texts, one poetry and the other either prose or drama; an analytical essay on each was required; usually there were some prompts in the questions and a few contextual details to get students started. And that was it… obviously too difficult by the time we reached the 1990s and so the tinkering began.

Preparing students for such a paper was quite a challenge, but an enjoyable one. There were, of course, books of carefully selected extracts (often dull as ditchwater) designed to support the teacher in imparting the necessary training, skills and practice. Or, you could devise your own course, as many teachers I knew did. This was the tricky bit but once you had amassed sufficient and varied selections of prose, poetry and drama, you were good to go.

Two years was a decent length of time; no messing about at the end of the lower sixth with revision, study leave and AS exams breaking up the flow and continuity. Over time, I gradually developed what I came to call the ‘staircase‘ approach: bottom step: what is the writer saying? next step: how is s/he saying it? third step: how effective is s/he in saying it? Progressive in level of difficulty therefore, but ensuring that my students considered techniques, and were led to some kind of personal response.

Prose was relatively straightforward, I thought: a selection from novels beginning with Defoe – for me the first novelist – and gradually working towards the twentieth century, taking in both English and American authors. Using these it was possible to show students how the novel had developed, both in terms of subject-matter and style; they could see how the language, sentence length, syntax as well as use and presentation of dialogue had changed over time, and as the course worked towards its end, were usually able to identify roughly when a text had been written, after several careful reads. They became adept at reading between the lines, too: speculating thoughtfully, and making judgements which they could justify and evidence, even though their surmises might not have always been spot-on. Confidence built over time, and it was possible to lead them to express and clarify their opinions and reactions too.

Work on extracts from plays could follow a similar pattern: one could compare the use of verse and prose, and how dramatists sought increasing control over interpretation of their work through ever more complex stage directions.

Poetry was a lot more demanding and also a lot more fun, with so many different forms and styles, never mind subjects, and that was before you got on to the huge range of poetic techniques. Because – I oversimplify, obviously – poems tended to be shorter and self-contained, you were analysing an entire work. There was the (often) added difficulty of working out what on earth a poet was actually going on about. Over two years, it was possible to get students to slow down, and read multiple times and carefully before beginning to commit their thoughts to paper. And again, there was time and space for them to develop and articulate a thoughtful personal response. They could learn how to react logically and sensibly to the feeling of being completely flummoxed. Although there was the famous year when the examiners chose a poem about a ringed plover, and if students hadn’t managed to divine that it was actually a bird, then they got themselves into some pretty awful scrapes…

There’s a lot of really exciting and good poetry and prose to play with, obviously, in four centuries of literature; there’s also stuff that is deadly dull, and you had to introduce students to that, too, and to coping with it; increasingly examiners tended to play safe and avoid anything too difficult or out of the way, as well as anything too political or religious; I can see why, in the end, they decided to ditch the openness of the paper and go for something more circumscribed, which they thought would be more manageable for students and teachers… and took a lot of the pleasure away.

I really loved teaching this course. There were golden moments: a self-written course is quite personal in a way, and to find students occasionally enthusing about a text that I really liked was very heartening and satisfying. One year, one of the texts was not unseen to quite a few of my students, as the examiners chose a short story which I had studied with them previously at GCSE. And I eventually came round to using William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster as the final poem in the course. Watching the students’ faces as they tried – often disbelievingly – to parse it as a work of poetry and literature, was wonderful, and my joy was complete when one year, after letting them wrestle in silence with it for ten minutes or more, a student put up his hand and said, rather tentatively, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’ Then, of course, the ice well-broken, we began to examine exactly why it was crap…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

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