My travels: O for Orange

March 17, 2017

I have happy memories of this small town in Provence from my hippy student days; I visited it a number of times. It’s most famous for its stunning Roman theatre built into the side of a hill: the seats are on the hillside, and then facing them, the stage and the immense main facade, in gorgeous golden stone. There is also a modest surviving Roman triumphal arch commemorating I have forgotten what and whom on one of the main roads leaving the town.

On the top of the hill was a pretty basic and very cheap campsite where I spent many happy days and nights – I seem to remember in those days a pitch was about 4 francs a night. My needs were simple in those days; I hitch-hiked with my tent and sleeping bag and few other necessities in a rucksack, and I could walk into town, have my daily ice cream, choose my different cheese-of-the-day, and get the necessary beer, bread and fruit and veg for the next twenty-four hours.

I particularly remember one evening’s adventure. Orange uses its amphitheatre for sumptuous live opera concerts in the summer; one day a Belgian traveller and I sat chatting and working through a bottle of red in the campsite and decided we’d try and sneak through the woods on the hillside into the opera for nothing (as opposed to paying 200 francs for a seat). We didn’t realise that the theatre was guarded by the Foreign Legion whose job was to prevent just what we intended to do; we spent a drunken and merry hour trying to slip past and outwit the legionnaires who were having none of it, of course, and fortunately for us were relatively good-humoured about our escapades; eventually we realised we should give up, and instead chatted about life with some of the legionnaires. Hell, neither of us like opera anyway.

Provence is lovely; I fell in love with it on my trips there. The feel of the heat, and the smells are special, the landscape beautiful. And I saw hoopoes in the campsite at Orange, the only place I’ve ever come across them in the wild. Orange is pretty central for a good number of interesting places in Provence. Avignon is not far, and I have fond memories of rambling around Mont Ventoux, and exploring the amazing place which is Vaison-la-Romaine: the mediaeval town perched on the steep hill, the vast Roman town below, and the modern-day French country town with its market alongside.


My travels: N for (Grotte de) Niaux

March 17, 2017

240px-Niaux,_bisonsI don’t think I fully realised what I was seeing when I was taken to the Grotte de Niaux when I was seventeen. There are caves in southern France and northern Spain where our stone age ancestors lived many thousands of years ago, and as part of their culture drew wonderful drawings, painted fantastic paintings of their hunts and their prey, pressed their inked palm-prints onto cave walls. I’ve read fascinating and hair-raising accounts of the cave explorers who first found, mapped and explored these caves nearly a century ago.

Nowadays, visits to such places are strictly limited, if not actually impossible; replica caves and replica paintings have been built there for tourists to visit in safety and comfort, and so that the originals can be preserved for the future. Even forty-five years ago, before such replicas were constructed, only a small number of visitors were allowed into the actual caves at any one time: the paintings were at risk from the very warmth of our breath and its dampness, which would eventually have resulted in the growth of lichens and other things on the cave walls and the paintings, eventually destroying them. We had to carry acetylene lamps, which give off very little heat, but which also provided scant illumination. I think the guide was allowed something more useful in order to be able to point out things to us. The darkness, the silence and the stillness helped but it was very hard to get my mind around those twenty or thirty thousand years that separated the oh so sophisticated teenager from his ancient forebears; I remember a feeling of awe something like that which I experience when looking up at the stars, and although now my memories of the visit are quite faint, I do have a couple of postcards which show some of those marvellous paintings and drawings: human handprints, animals leaping, hunting.


Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..


On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.


On translation (again!)

March 12, 2017

The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in the original Arabic; if it’s in another language, it’s only a ‘version’, not the authentic Qur’an. At least, that’s my understanding of its status, and it led me once again to thinking about the business of translation. Obviously in my learning of languages, I’ve had to do plenty of it; I first became aware of the complexity when studying French at university. Turning the French words into English ones was straightforward enough, but making the whole read and flow like something in real English was much more of an art, and in the other direction was far harder, for coming from outside French, as it were, how well could I judge whether my effort felt like proper French? Nuance and idiom were everything, both ways…

Speaking the language was different: the revelation, epiphany even, which had come much earlier, before O level, when I was visiting my French pen-pal, was that I could speak the language more than passably and was understood by real French people, and that what I was saying did not involve any translating from English to French. The thoughts were there in my head, I articulated and they came out in French, because I was in France, talking with French people.

So what is a translation? Etymologically, from the Latin trans = across and latum, supine of the verb ferre to carry, so ‘carried across’. What do translators do? Somehow they enable us to read and understand a text written in a language we are unable to use. This involves putting the meanings of all the words into our language, and so much more: the sense, the feel, the meaning of the text as a whole also must be conveyed; idiom ideally is retained so we get a sense of the style of the original, the nature of the diction, the impression that the original author was trying to convey to her/his readers in the first language. Once you think of all these aspects of the task, it becomes formidable. And how can I be sure that, as a non-Russian and a non-Russian speaker (for these are surely different things) I’m actually getting what Tolstoy or Dostoevsky was saying?

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I’ve enjoyed many of the novels of Ismail Kadare, some in English, more in French. And, to the best of my knowledge, most of the translations available in English until recently were done from the French, not the original Albanian. So how far am I from Kadare’s original meaning when I read Broken April, or The Pyramid, for example? Or, looking at an example in the other direction, consider Joseph Conrad, nowadays rather a neglected modernist writer. First language Polish, second language French, and yet he wrote brilliant novels in English, his third language, for heaven’s sake! Yes, you can detect French-isms in his English occasionally, but not that often…

I was struck many years ago when I read a comment by Umberto Eco about his translator into English, William Weaver. Eco actually said that he thought Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than his (Eco’s). Now (a) what does this mean, and (b) how could Eco actually know? My head spins. And for me, it is a brilliant novel – Weaver’s version, that is, for I don’t read or speak Italian. So what have I read?

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I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from A Dead House, translated by the well-known pair of translators of Russian literature, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. From articles I’ve read, one either hates their translation style or loves it. I’ve read many of their translations, and I’m firmly in the latter camp: for me they bring the stories alive, and with a modern enough idiom to make them comfortable to read unlike some of the stilted and wooden older translations. I’m not qualified to comment on accuracy or anything like that as I don’t speak Russian, but what they do works for me. But the more I read and think about translation as an art, the more in awe of its practitioners I am.


Manuel d’économie critique

March 11, 2017

rubon2669-948ffSome regular readers will know I read Le Monde Diplomatique, a left-wing French current affairs magazine whose awkward title hides a wealth of detailed commentary and analysis, and which has an English-language edition. Another thing the magazine does is publish occasional one-offs on specific themes, and this was one of them. It seems to be aimed at the equivalent of sixth-formers or undergraduates: it was quite a challenging read but very informative and had some excellent graphics.

As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed that what I read tends to fit in with my existing opinions, and this was no exception: it confirmed my long-held conviction that our economic system is utterly insane, and geared to helping a relatively small number of people to continue to grab the largest slice of the pie while the rest of us fight over the crumbs. What I get from reading things that chime in with my opinions is usually more evidence, as well as prompting to think more deeply about an issue.

The idea that economics is in any way a ‘science’ worthy to sit alongside fields like chemistry or physics is thoroughly debunked; we are regularly reminded that the ‘Nobel Prize’ for economics isn’t actually one of Alfred Nobel’s awards at all but a later invention by the Bank of Sweden who thought it would be a good idea to name their award ‘in honour of’ Nobel… Orthodoxies are evidenced, challenged and demolished in this excellent book. And it’s made clear how, increasingly, non-orthodox economists and their analyses are being squeezed out, excluded from academia, from media interviews and presentations by the current hegemonic neo-liberal orthodoxies. Indeed, recently economics students at the University of Manchester protested about the narrow range of what they were being taught.

The mantra of ever more growth being either possible or desirable is challenged, as is the myth of ‘green capitalism’; the myth of business as the creator of wealth is debunked, too, along with an examination of the negative aspects of charity and volunteer work.

I felt there were flaws in the work, though: it suffered from the currently common failing of trying to present every topic in a double-page spread, which meant that some key topics and ideas were insufficiently explored and explained. This led to it feeling rather ‘bitty’ at times. Does every text aimed at a school or college readership really need to have everything finely chopped for short attention-spans?

Reading the entire book does work on the macro level, though: so much of how the economy ‘works’ (ie is supposed to but doesn’t) is clearly contradictory, not making sense as a whole, and thus it becomes clearer exactly why we are in such a mess at the moment: there is nothing coherent about how the present system works at all, and why would there be when the system is basically snouts in the trough elbowing everyone else out of the way? What I finally learned and understood after many years was how the banking system, and money-creation system currently operates: clear explanations and excellent graphics helped here.

I wish the British press went in for publishing ventures like this one: the French do seem to believe in the mission to explain and inform citizens, and surely this can only be good in a democracy?


On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.


On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.

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One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.


How I write

March 9, 2017

This post was prompted by a fellow blogger on matters literary, who reflected on whether it was better to research and read around a book before coming to read it, and the impact that others’ judgements might have on how one then read and enjoyed that book. He got me thinking in more depth about what goes on as I write these posts.

I write my blog because I enjoy it; it has become a discipline of sorts, over the years. I don’t have a vast number of readers, but I hope that they do get something from what I have to say.

My reading is very undisciplined. By this, I mean that I don’t have an agenda or programme or a list of books that I intend to read in a particular order. True, I do intend to read that enormous pile that is only shrinking very slowly in my study, but whether I will ever finish it or not is determined by factors beyond my control: one book suggests another and what I intended to pick up next may never actually find its way into my hand…

Equally, I have periods where I read avidly, and others where, surprisingly, I don’t feel much like reading, or where I read magazines rather than books. And there will be times when I’m thinking about various aspects of literature more generally and produce a different kind of post for a while.

But, when I pick up a book, it’s almost always to begin reading straight away. I’ll ignore the introduction, if there is one – I may decide to read it after I’ve finished the book, or, if the book is very challenging or vexing I may interrupt my reading to take in the introduction, to see if it helps. As I read, I think, reflect, and occasionally jot down notes on a small pad which is usually at hand. I like to have my iPad close by too, to look up words or places or details that may occur to me as I’m reading. So by the time I’m at the end of a book, I usually have enough notes from which to construct my blog post. If I’m writing a more general post, like this one for instance, I will usually make some notes and devise a general plan first. As a student of literature for many years, I have acquired tools and skills which encourage me to trust my own judgement, at least initially, before turning to what others have said and thought. I don’t feel I approach things this way out of arrogance, and after I have read and reached what I think are my conclusions, I frequently then look at what other have thought and said…

I’ve left longhand drafts behind long ago: what’s the point of new technology if you don’t take advantage of what it has to offer? So I type directly into Libre Office. When I have a complete draft, I’ll re-read, edit and correct (I’m a dreadful typist), taking care over language and nuance: although I know some of my readers, most of them I don’t, and need to be really careful to get my meaning over clearly and accurately, hopefully leaving no room for misunderstanding. And there are many readers from other lands whose first language will not be English.

Often I will leave what I’ve written to mature for a couple of days before I come back to it and give it a final check before actually publishing; after some time has passed I will have a clearer sense of whether what I’ve written says what I want to say, the way I want to say it.

Note to my former students who read my blog: this may well not be the way I taught you to write essays, but hopefully you will remember that I also said you should find out what works for you and then stick with it. Which I have done.


On examinations, coursework and cheating

March 6, 2017

I was shocked last week to read an article which showed how widespread the practice of buying essays online, in order to boost one’s results, has become: it’s not a cheap route to success, but one that tempts many, and is very hard to detect. The issue is somewhat different from plagiarism, ie using material from other sources in your own work and not admitting it: both are definitely cheating and severely punished when found out. Plagiarism was becoming an issue towards the end of my teaching career, and there are, as far as I’m aware, programs capable of detecting it. Indeed, I detected some in my work in the classroom. And neither of these issues is going to go away, because the internet isn’t…

So how best, how fairest to assess performance in a subject like English Literature?

When I did A levels back in the 1970s, it was all examined, and the exams were all closed book (ie you had no texts with you in the exam room). It was hard work, and there was a lot of memorising of quotations, especially: it was to enable exams in the subject to be less memory-dependent, and to spend more time assessing other skills that alternative forms of assessment were devised and tried out. I remember, for instance, preparing students for open book exams, where a copy of the text, sometimes annotated, sometimes not, was allowed in the exam room. A number of problems immediately arose: some editions of a text had better or more copious textual and critical apparatus for weaker students to waste time looking up, and if annotation was allowed, then students – sometimes encouraged by teachers – stretched this to extremes, filling up every margin and blank page with notes and even essay plans… it couldn’t be policed and wasn’t fair.

When I first started teaching, there was far less unnecessary pressure on schools, teachers and students, and a system of 100% coursework seemed to work quite well, as long as moderating processes were adequate. For a while I was group chair of a local panel of schools where we met to moderate and standardise GSCE coursework grades in English Literature. It seemed a fairer system to me, allowing students to develop and demonstrate a far wider range of analytical and writing skills, and completely removing the memory test element. Research at the time also suggested that coursework enabled girls to do better. It’s easy to see potential problems with this system, and they became more and more serious as the educational ‘reforms’ of the bean-counters in the 1980s took effect. Dishonesty was hard to detect and eliminate: teachers could instruct students on what they should write; parents or older siblings could write the essays; extracts from critics and study guides could be copied into an essay in the hope of better marks. Sometimes this might be detected: a lot of the time it surely wasn’t. The advent of the web made this all far worse, as did increasing pressure by school management and OfSTED to produce results.

For most of my teaching career a combination of coursework and examination obtained: the advantages and disadvantages have already been outlined, but the balance between the two allowed a wide range of knowledge, understanding and skills to be developed and assessed.

And now the pendulum seems to have swung back to where it was when I was at school: closed book exams. A number of issues come to the fore: league tables, and competition and comparisons between schools – the ‘market’ as it’s so quaintly called – demands ever higher results (grade inflation) when surely we should be aiming at the best for every student, and co-operation and sharing of resources and expertise between schools. This is compounded by the spread of ‘data collection’ where numbers and grades are perceived to be more important than a real understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses (professional judgement has gone out of the window) – how many ways are there to weigh a pig?

We do currently seem to have an education system that isn’t fit for purpose, partly because no-one’s sure of what the purpose is. We have a cumbersome exam system run by a number of competing commercial companies that pretend to be charities, who often cannot recruit enough properly qualified people to mark papers, while we have just increased the number of exams… I’ve often wondered how the French manage to get their baccalaureate marked and results out before the end of the summer term (which is earlier than ours…). And then there’s that major problem that got me started – the internet. If you can buy an essay, written to order, then you hand an advantage to the rich, and you have to turn the clock back to the exam room of forty years ago in the name of fairness. I did manage to memorise enough quotations from the eight texts I studied to help me get my grade ‘A’, but I’m not sure what good that memory test did me…


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