Posts Tagged ‘University of Liverpool’

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

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My travels: L for Liverpool

March 2, 2017

I think I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived on my first visit, for a university interview: there was cheerful music playing over the loudspeaker system at Lime Street Station, and I never looked back. The interview was a breeze and the offer a doddle and so that’s where I ended up, doing my first degree and also my PGCE, before moving away.

I lived in various different parts of the city: halls of residence (now demolished, I recently learned) on the Greenbank site, then a house about a mile away from which we did a midnight flit after the immersion heater had exploded in the sitting room; just off Edge Lane, and then a couple of years above a florist’s in Anfield, which I loved.

Things about the city: all the Beatles associations – Penny Lane opposite the halls of residence, the glass onion in Sefton Park; the parks themselves, the amazing eateries in various different places, the pubs… the gents’ in the Philharmonic, and Ye Cracke on Rice Street, where we used to hang out in the War Office… the pub-crawl we did on results day. The ferry over the Mersey and forays into darkest Birkenhead where a friend and I would each buy bin-bags full of cheap science fiction to read.

Culturally Liverpool was wonderful: there was the Everyman Theatre, in its old guise and then done up, where I saw so many amazing plays, and ate so many wonderful lunches, and the Bluecoat Gallery where there was a cinema club in which I spent many happy hours getting to know the films of many countries and directors, and eventually there was the marvellous, the surreal Liverpool School of Music Dream and Pun (or something like that!) set up by Ken Campbell, where I enjoyed many bizarre theatrical experiences, including the world premiere of the Illuminatus Trilogy (I still have my handwritten ticket issued by Ken himself). And lots of great concerts in the Mountford Hall at the university.

I’m sure my memories are largely happy ones because my time there coincided with those years of freedom when I was a student, without many cares in the world and in receipt of a grant which paid me to lie on my bed and read books and think about them. And Liverpool did have its grim sides: being burgled, the acquaintance who woke up one morning to find a corpse on the doorstep, the awful poverty in some areas of the city… But I remember the city and its cheerful inhabitants with affection; it will be time to go back soon: there’s an Otto Dix exhibition in the autumn…

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