Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Our old houses

I doubt if this will be of any interest except to family and Bradfordians -- if them.

From birth to moving away to university I lived in three houses in Bradford (and in a flat for the first month or two – I think the address is on my birth certificate but I’ve never looked for the place).

The first was 314 Poplar Grove. The postal address was Great Horton, Bradford, but that title was dubious because we were on a hill in a new (1920s or 1930s) development on a hill above Great Horton, a village which Bradford swallowed in the 19th century. We were probably more like Wibsey, though that was less respectable.

There’s no way of making this a good picture. I took it on a dull day in 2002.

The house cost, I think, £700 in 1941 or 42. I'm sure that when I lived there it was even uglier. The pebbledash -- always an unpleasant material -- was a drab grey. There was a garage but it was wood or asbestos, across a passageway from the side door. It housed our Hillman Minx (1937?) which sat on four piles of bricks (‘laid up’) during the war. I remember my dad (back from the army) reinstating it, a process that I must be mistaken in remembering involved removing from the engine nuts or bolts that somehow attached themselves during the years of abandonment.

The front room window has clearly been replaced and the paintwork was brown, with a graining effect worked in the varnish by Mr Livesey. (In those days there was no such thing as white paint -- and I'm not sure it wasn't better that way. Houses were brown, maroon, dark green or dark blue.) The back garden was great: it had an Anderson shelter (I don’t remember going in it except after it was abandoned – Bradford wasn’t bombed), a lawn, a bird bath and black current bushes, and at the far end a gate into the snicket which gave access to the back gardens of a variety of interesting and mainly friendly neighbours. Next door lived the Hatches, and a few doors away Muriel Sagar, a teenage girl who used to look after me.

We had evacuees from London. I don’t remember their names (but have a vague sense that I do know and that they might come back to me) or how the arrangements worked, but they were a mother and a boy.

In the larder (separate from the ‘scullery’ – no such thing as a ‘kitchen’ in such houses) a blue enamel bucket contained eggs preserved in something called Isinglass). Our front room furniture was, I think, ‘utility’ – under-upholstered armchairs and sofas covered with some textile that was rough on the legs and with angular (cardboard?) arms. (The buses had ‘utility’ wooden seats.)

There were no houses at the other side of the road (which wasn’t made up -- I used to find interesting shiny stones on it) but a stone wall over which there was a sheer drop into a quarry. Later, in my next house, when I was 7 or 8, I learned to fear the Quarry Gang who lived below the quarry in the ‘slums’ and the Canterbury Avenue council estate.

For the next house, 12 Haycliffe Drive, perhaps half a mile away, I have no picture so will perhaps return to it another time. It was a similar semi, perhaps slightly bigger, but had the advantage of being two doors away from my grandparents (at no. 9, with Mr Grant in between and, during the war, Colonel Moholski) and having a field at the back with horses and sometimes pigs and the farm at the top end, above us. In my memory that was the best house. There was grey wallpaper with a white grid pattern.

When I was about 12 my grandma, now a widow, sold her house and joined us in buying a large Victorian end terrace down in the valley, in Manningham, off the road running out from the centre of Bradford to Saltaire. We were now three children, two of us at the grammar school which, with the move, was a short walk instead of two bus rides away. Devonshire Terrace (we were no. 5) was a gated, shabby-genteel cul-de-sac. We were the bottom house on the left.

The gates are long gone.

Next door was the elderly, confused, rouged, tipsy and unhygienic Miss Briggs, and two doors away the genial Geoghegan family with four boys – Patrick, Anthony, Philip and Ricky – and one girl, the youngest, Simone. Their mother was French and glamorous. The boys went to the (reputedly rough) Catholic grammar school, St Bede’s, and all did well. Patrick ended up in the Foreign Office, Anthony in the wool trade (Bradford’s thing), Philip became an architect and I don’t know about Ricky, or Simone. They were a smashing family.

On the other side lived another nice family, the Denisons.

We also had a back lane at the bottom of which was our garage and, behind that, a drop down to some allotments.

Like much of Bradford, these houses have been cleaned. In our time all stonework was black with soot -- as were the stone walls and sheep on the surrounding moors. Stone looked better like that, especially on the magnificent Victorian mills, warehouses and public buildings.

During my teenage years thousands of Pakistanis came to Bradford to work in the woollen mills. These families at first lived close to the centre of town but over the years spread out into areas with larger houses like ours. When I went past in November the occupants of Devonshire Terrace and the road it is off, St Mary’s Road, seemed to be entirely Asian.

Devonshire Terrace/Manningham never meant that much to me. My Wordsworthian Eden was Wibsey/Great Horton with its waste land, curving roads of pre-war semis, snickets, 18th century stone cottages, fields with black walls, hills, bad-tempered farmers in filthy raincoats taking rusty buckets to soaking horses in rotten wooden sheds, mills smelling of sheep’s grease, sinister mill dams, trams, the Cosy picture house – and above all Moor Fields, of which I've written here on other occasions.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Why stories are important

The importance of stories in education usually isn’t well explained. It's just this:

Stories give us practice in creating imagined worlds from words.

By ‘imagined’ I don’t necessarily mean fantastic. Imagining includes simply entertaining in consciousness scenes, situations, states of affairs, people, things etc. that aren’t immediately present to our senses in the surroundings we’re in at the moment. Bringing these ideas into consciousness is a creative mental activity, though not a deliberate one.

We don’t have to try to learn to do this; it comes with language. Once language has developed to a certain point, words arranged in narrative – stories – make imagined worlds appear to us without our having to try. So, presumably, what regular and developing experience of stories does is teach us to get meaning from, first, less familiar linguistic elements (language different from that we experience in everyday speech, in vocabulary and syntactical structures, for instance); second, differences of register and style (to ‘place’ one style you need to know many) and, third, more complex narrative structures.

In this respect – getting good at using words as instigators, props and organisers of imaginative work -- it’s equally beneficial to be read to as to read for oneself, or indeed to listen to oral stories.

(One of the inadequacies of educational theory – at least at the level it’s usually taught at – is the failure to distinguish what we get by virtue of simply being human (which we are by virtue of a particular biology and living in human society) from what can develop in us as a result of particular sorts of cultivation. For example: everyone (almost) can talk; it seems good in school to provide for the plentiful exercise of this capability; but what can school specifically add, by attentive and directed regimes of experience and activity, to the talk we can all do anyway?)

The essential is to develop the capability that we gain with language itself to have language induce imaginative work.

What this in turn depends on – the prior step, as the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky explained in the 1920s and 30s -- is an ability to attach our other-world-making to ‘signs’ in general. It’s our ability to find meaning in signs that enables us to find meaning in one sort of sign, words. Signs, in this special semiotic sense, are simply things outside us that we treat as signs – the smoke, for instance, that we see not just as smoke but as meaning the presence of fire. Signs are things that are there (in the real world outside us) that we use to bring into existence in the mind things that aren’t there, such as the idea of fire. Meaning is that relation between the thing outside that acts as sign and an idea inside us. The thing outside us can be a visual or auditory thing, such as the sound of a spoken word or the appearance of a written one.

Sign-use (‘symbolic activity') may start in play, as Vygotsky suggests, when a stick becomes a sign that supports the holding in consciousness of the meaning ‘horse’; or, more obviously in our society, with television images and picture books. Such signs are crucially different from the smoke/fire one in that their ‘outside’ or material component is made, not found (a distinction that St Augustine had already formulated).

For Lucy at age 1 a picture of a lion was more than one more item in the visual environment; it already had a meaning and provoked imaginative activity, giving rise to the meaning ‘lion’, which must have comprised primarily some sort of mental image. Already the picture was functioning as a sign, inducing her to imagine a lion – indeed to create the concept of a lion, since she had not seen one in a zoo and probably had no other basis to go on than the image.

Hence the importance of picture books in developing children’s capacity to use signs, whether visual or verbal, as instigators and organisers of mental activity – of imagining and thinking.

And later on stories – in words -- teach us not just to enter into more and more sophisticated narratives but, more fundamentally, to live in the sorts of world that are made possible when we know how to exploit the meanings that words can get us into. (In education we surely just have to trust that they just in general do this; it's nonsense to specify a 'learning outcome' for a single experience of a story.)

Comic strips, of course, are a terrific in-between form, though not just that. They provide a medium for the transition from pictures to words at the same time as teaching us to follow narrative structure. But they're also capable of creating worlds and realities that are particular to them and continue to exercise a special power even on adult readers.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fragments shored up etc

Just to confirm I'm still here, more or less. No new photos.

What I have to say is just:

1. London beautiful in December, winter light. The best building in London, since cleaning and restoration, is the Festival Hall. Pure modernism: long horizontal windows, piloti, clean shape, not nervous about big expanses of flat surface. The back is the best view, now that the surrounds have been made lovely with paving and the masonry is pristine.

Much depends on the beauty of Portland stone. Contrast the concrete on the rest of the South Bank, which looks good at fewer times – and most of all when lit at night. The RFH cries out for photographs. I'll try and oblige.

2. I'm all for bikes in cities but they have one feature that can make them dangerous. I saw how today, off Chancery Lane (going to King's College library, the former Public Records Office, and another magnificent building, at least on the inside where it’s been restored and repurposed with flair and sensitivity – the finest library building I know, besides the British Museum Reading Room, Leeds University Brotherton Library (another rotunda) and the 17th century libraries of Oxford and Cambridge). Yes, bikes. One came out of side street into a more major road, causing a van to swerve to give him room – as the cyclist counted on him doing. The problem rarely spoken of is that cyclists don’t like to lose momentum: they value their stored energy and are reluctant to slow down because they’ll have to work hard to get their speed back again. Fit bikes with huge flywheels that could give them a starting boost in such situations.

3. I joined SofaCinema and ordered The World at War without quite realising that the DVDs would come one after the other, using up my whole monthly allocation so I'd be unable to watch anything else until I'd got through the whole series.

It’s great though. From the last episode I watched: a fed-up soldier waiting in a landing craft off the English coast ready to be towed in the next few hours to Normandy and D-Day. He comments cynically on the fatuous messages of cheer issuing from the top brass. Monty, brilliant but a fool: ‘God speed, and good hunting in the fields of Europe!’ Prat. One can appreciate how that went down with the fox-hunters of Wigan and the Gorbals.

One gain from the series: the name and music of Carl Davis, who I hadn’t heard of. The music you get at the start and end of each episode is haunting: thrillingly modernist and discordant with that tragic Central European note one gets in Bartok and Martinu, one to which I always mentally attach the phrase ‘the dark days of 1942’. But not without, too, a suggestion of the ‘broad sunlit uplands’.

I wish I could put a link so you could hear it, but of course it’s copyright. It’s at times like this, when a piece of music affects me profoundly, that I wish I had the musical knowledge to identify the features causing the impact.

I can’t get enough of World War II, while my inclination is to avoid anything about WWI. Is that because WWII’s in living memory – even mine, just; I remember my dad being in the army? Or because it isn’t done to death in school history, poetry anthologies, novels etc?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Personal and positional authority

In interviewing former teachers about what English teaching was like in schools in the period from the end of the war to 1965 we’ve heard that in the 60s, if not earlier, there was a divide in approaches to teaching working class children.

This isn’t news, of course; it’s the divide to which the terms ‘traditional[ist]’ and ‘progressive’ have often been applied. It seems to have been real: while the first group favoured strict control over classroom behaviour, silence from pupils except when answering questions or reading aloud, the explicit teaching of grammar and, perhaps above all, an emphasis on correctness in written English (grammar, punctuation, spelling), the second believed that above all pupils should be encouraged to put their thoughts, observations and experiences into words, and thus become confident and articulate in speaking and writing; the best way to get language working in a motivated way (self-motivation -- i.e. interest -- was crucial) was to encourage discussion and writing about topics that engaged them; that often indicated topics from their own real lives.

The latter is the line that was promoted to graduate trainees on PGCE courses, first at the London Institute of Education (Britton, Rosen, Martin) and eventually nearly everywhere. But the argument put to us in some interviews is that it was middle class Institute graduates who as English teachers carried their respect for the language and culture of their working class pupils to the point where it placed in jeopardy the pupils’ chances of passing O Level and meeting employers’ expectations. Those who made this argument were non-graduate teachers of working class origin who had won their education and qualification the hard way and who wanted to give their own pupils what they needed to get on.

I was one of the Institute-trained graduate teachers to whom such criticisms might have applied. There is truth in them in that we did believe that an ability to express oneself in language -- to generate discourse, written and spoken, that used linguistic resources to good effect -- was more important initially than Standard English grammar and correct orthography. And if ‘initially’ meant ‘until they could express themselves effectively in language apart from the written conventions, that period might well not end until after the age (16) at which the public exams were sat.

According to linguistics, we maintained, no variety (dialect) of English is inherently better than another but only looks that way because of what it is used for and by whom -- for the communications of those who run things. We therefore regarded the imposition of standard grammar on non-standard-speaking working class pupils as, ultimately, class oppression, and O Level’s stress on grammar and spelling as an unjustified barrier to working class advancement into higher education and professional careers. (Hence we championed the proposed CSE -- Certificate of Secondary Education – which we saw as both more permissive in respect of conventional requirements and more reliable in terms of sampling candidates’ general written abilities.) Maintaining these beliefs was, I still think, more or less right in principle: if English teachers weren’t going to oppose the stupidity of the old O Level -- which had to be seen to be believed -- who would? We may, though, have put them into practice without enough thought for the consequences.

Some brilliant English teaching was achieved by both camps, and teachers from both retain to this day the respect and gratitude of former pupils, as we’re also finding in our study. The practices of each were sometimes caricatured by the others; good teachers from both sides got good exam results. The traditionalists made reluctant and lazy kids work; the progressives sometimes got them interested enough to choose to work under their own steam; both sides failed with many kids who just didn’t want any of it. It’s also true, though, that students who were engaged by each type of teaching got a different education out of it – but that’s a story for another time.

Was it caricature when they said we were experimenting with working class kids, in a way we couldn’t have got away with in middle class grammar schools? Perhaps; but experiment was badly needed. The men and women who trained us at the Institute had themselves been pioneers in drawing attention to the resources and often the poetic beauty of working class speech and the qualities of children’s writing, and, a bit later (Rosen in particular) the way that it often fulfils functions of abstracting and theorising within its familiar frames of narrative and enactment. English teaching had never hitherto attempted to treat the qualities of vernacular language as a resource on which to build, and we needed to work out how to. Our experiments were about creating new possibilities for students to put their native intelligence and linguistic capacity to productive use, to the end of getting into both more analytic and more literary forms of discourse, and of coming to grips with school knowledge. We were pioneering forms of learning that were viable alternatives to just ‘being told’, and made to work, by a strict – if sometimes charismatic -- teacher.

But if we ask how many of our pupils in a working class school with hardly any ‘grammar school’ intake we got into that ‘more analytic and more literary forms of discourse’, we have to say, not many. But did the others do any better?

We Institute graduates, I believe, knew more about language. We saw more in the children’s language than those without that training, who often missed the qualities on which one could build, seeing only correctness or its absence, and perhaps a good word (‘Nice adjective!) or turn of phrase here or there. We got excited about what the kids were able to achieve in relatively informal genres of writing and in discussion -- perhaps so excited that we were apt to forget the huge gap that remained to be bridged between those achievements and the level and type of linguistic virtuosity, as well as conventional competence, that were demanded for higher education and professional employment.

But there was something else behind this split, and it went deeper. At some point on the PGCE I learned (from a Bernstein lecture?) a distinction between two types of authority, positional and personal. Positional authority derived from a person’s position, such as mother, grandmother, teacher, police officer – or, in relation to children, adult. Personal authority was accorded to a person on the basis of personal qualities. The working class non-graduate traditionalists I've been referring to tended to exercise positional authority: they may have cared for the students and liked them, but they expected the outward forms of respect and formal modes of address, and maintained a distance. This form of authority was held to be consistent with that found in typical working class families.

Some teachers like me had come from homes where authority was often more personal and, as we saw it, more humane and less demeaning. For my university-educated generation it went against the grain to make demands by right rather than negotiate and reason; we wanted pupils to go along with our regime because it was clearly reasonable. In our own grammar schools we’d experienced plenty of traditional authority exercised in a curriculum and pedagogy that often made little sense, and we’d had enough of it. We weren’t going to treat kids like that and didn’t want positional adult authority, though of course we often had to fall back on it. Culturally, too, we often felt closer to the kids than to our older colleagues – and in those days a high proportion of the teachers was a lot older.

To the argument of the traditionalists that working class children needed positional authority (showing respect etc) because that was what they were used to at home, our answer would have been that our duty was to liberate young people from unthinking obedience and teach them to make their own minds up. If they were to become rational, autonomous learners they had to be treated as such. That implied our starting from a position of initial respect for what they brought to school with them by way of language and values, though we knew that in the end it wasn’t enough. Better to begin that way than to tell them theirs was not to reason why but only to get on with learning what they were told, the reasons for which they’d appreciate later.

Our intellectual position seemed and seems quite strong, though what lay behind it was as much a generation’s sense of itself and its role in progress as a rationally worked-out principle. But I think, too, of Mr Twelves’s teaching (see my earlier posting, 5 January 2008 ), and of all those European biographies of poor boys who got into gymnasium or lycée and thrived on the beauty of abstract disciplines and of language far removed from that normally experienced.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Signs along the Thames

I wrote this one before the world collapsed and wasn’t able to post it. It’s strikingly out of date now the season has truly changed, earth is hard as stone etc., but anyway here it is...

SURBITON, where I live, is boring but the river, ten minutes from the flat, compensates. Along this side a ‘promenade’ (wide asphalted path with seats bearing plaques naming dead Thames-lovers) goes down to Kingston-upon-Thames, 15 minutes away. If you cross Kingston bridge you can walk up the opposite side to Hampton Court.

This morning [a couple of weeks ago] I did this side, but it was cold, damp and uninviting. The other day, though, [even longer ago] late in the afternoon it was exhilarating. Most of the photos I took aren’t worth showing. The tall trees (poplars and horse chestnuts) the line the other bank are wonderful but I've never got a good shot of them. Against a winter sky they were magnificent, one with a single crow perched heraldically on the topmost branch.

The last good time along there was earlier in November, when autumnal mistiness reminded me of the smoky days around Plot Night (November 5th, Guy Fawkes night) when we kids were out gathering wood for the bonfire (chumping, it was called). This week it’s winter, the trees are bare and the skies and water dramatic.

My only sub-half-decent photos:

Whenever a scene in nature seems charged with significance (that crow was clearly a sign), a response learned no doubt from Romantic poetry (though what about ‘the crow makes wing to the rooky wood’…), I think of the poetry of Peter Huchel, translated by Michael Hamburger. I found it in the 1960s in, I think, a Carcanet anthology, East German Poetry in Translation, or perhaps in the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, and used it in teaching. One of my favourites (from the new Anvil Peter Huchel: The Garden of Theophrastus) is ‘Swans Rising’. I don’t read German but love reading it opposite Hamburger’s translation.

Out of the woods

New hard drive, new internet provider, new phone, the lot. I think I'm finally back in business, thanks to efficient help from both the public sector (Saif, the IT guy in our department at King's) and the private (Apple, Carphone Warehouse). In main Apple Stores you can book a session with an Apple Genius (yeah, I know). I don’t know if they’re geniuses but as well as being intelligent and knowledgeable they’re uncondescending, helpful and nice. In stores like the one at Kingston you can observe with hope the reversal of the usual education scene: at the long tables down the middle middle-aged and older people attend deferentially to the advice of young men and women in Apple t-shirts.

Carphone Warehouse (and the mobile phone companies generally, I gather) have terrible systems that make life difficult for their staff, but the people in the Surbiton branch, and one I've used earlier on Tottenham Court Road, are, like the Apple guys, smart, understanding, cool and friendly. It’s actually a good experience going into one of these places, unlike, say, Marks & Spencer or Ikea (no staff to be found).

If only what Apple and Carphone (and King's at times) knew about appointing the right people for customer (and employee) relations could be taught to all public and private organisations, how much pleasanter and easier modern life would be.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Blog problems

Sorry for the gap in service -- big computer problems at this end. I'm hoping my visit to the Apple Genius Bar in Kingston tomorrow will get me out of them.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

More excuses

No recent blogging: partly I’ve been out a lot, partly I've been doing a lot of writing otherwise, so don’t much feel like writing the blog as well.

I've been reading, scribbling and thinking around a paper that Jan Derry gave to our English Theory Group. She was arguing for certain conclusions that would follow for education from an ‘inferentialist’ epistemology and a correct understanding of Vygotsky’s roots in Hegel. One implication was that the imparting of knowledge in education is a matter of making the student familiar with the relevant ‘space of reasons’, a fuzzy and ill-defined but rich and complex zone of facts, concepts, ideas and associations.

I can’t briefly explain inferentialism, a promising recent line in philosophy associated with the names Sellars, Macdowell and Brandom. In the context of English, though, we non-philosophers were able to see, for instance, that if knowledge is as those philosophers say, you can’t effectively teach a single scene from Macbeth -- which, sadly, some schools try to -- by explaining what each line means. The only way is via a broad exposure to Shakespeare in lots of different guises and contexts. The kids have to begin to be at home in the Shakespeare ‘space’.

I've also been looking at a couple of books on Romanticism and the origins of English Studies in English universities and schools. According to Ian Reid (Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies, 2004) the whole enterprise was a Romantic endeavour, and continued to be heavily influenced at least into the late 1960s by Wordsworth’s poetry and his notions on education and development, national culture, religion, childhood, creativity and imagination. At the end he speculates briefly on how it might have been otherwise: if, for instance, English had taken its lead from the teaching of rhetoric in the Scottish universities (Adam Smith taught rhetoric), or from the teaching of practical English in the Dissenting Academies (sort of FE colleges for non-conformists heading into business) or had shaped itself as cultural studies without the current exclusive fixation on popular culture.

When you think of it, it’s not at all obvious why ‘imaginative literature’, and especially poetry, should be at the centre of one the central subjects in compulsory mass education.

What else? Well, with some colleagues I'm working on the history of English teaching in London schools in the post-war years 1945-65. This involves interviewing former teachersand students from, eventually, three schools. At the moment we’re concentrating on Walworth School, founded in Southwark as an experimental comprehensive school in 1946. (We’ve recently talked to someone who was a pupil in that first year.)

Finally, last night I went to a benefit bash in Bermondsey for a taxi-driver with cancer -- a vastly ambitious do, attended by, it seemed, 150-200, organised by extended family and friends. Quite a few ex-Walworth people were there, including some I'd once taught. Here’s a story that’s not unusual: R was in a ‘remedial’ (joint bottom stream) class; literacy levels were low; these kids -- as always when you create such groups (we later abolished them) -- weren’t expected to go anywhere much. R is now a manager in one of the big train companies with 400 people under him; his daughter has a Masters degree. He didn’t do much in school because he didn’t see any point -- which doesn’t mean he wasn’t getting anything out of it.

Our research is throwing up loads of stories like that. Because the school tried to give a decent education, whether or not the pupils were obviously benefiting at the time, when motivation kicked in (at work) some of what had been taught turned out to have taken. At least, so I like to think.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Update, misc

Rather than tackle a single topic I thought I'd post a few days of diary.

I posted an entry last week (8 Nov, Nature and Culture) about a bike ride along the Thames from Hampton Court to Kingston. As the scene had been striking but I hadn’t taken the camera I went out again on Saturday, this time with camera, when an intervening spell of wild and wet weather had been and gone. As it turned out, though, autumn had changed to winter; it was cold and the sky was dull. I've just been looking through the photographs and they’re drab. I conclude -- as so often before, though I never seem to learn -- that it’s a waste of time taking photographs when the light is poor. Which in this country means a lot of the time.

Still reading my Philosophie magazine. In the interests of economy I was going to not renew, but I got so much out of the latest issue that I changed my mind. Partly it’s good for my French which I'm trying to improve (including a conversation class at the French Institute) but also I learn something about philosophy (e.g, this week, Kant and Searle) and constantly come across articles about which I think something like this would go down well with older English secondary students. I may post a couple of extracts -- but I keep saying that and time spent blogging is time not spent reading, drifting or watching the Parliament channel or my unopened DVDs.

In the library today I got Raymond Williams’s book on Drama from Ibsen to Brecht to see what, if anything, he’d say about Pirandello (see earlier post). There is a chapter and he does discuss Six Characters in Search of an Author (see previous posting) but I found it unsatisfying: Williams seems to be saying that Pirandello was making some ‘professional’ (his word) points about the business of theatre; while I can see the things that made him say that (and I hadn’t picked them all up) I felt the play was existentially disturbing.

The Parliament Channel had the Commons debate about the expansion of Heathrow: again, riveting, the part I saw -- in the evening with 20 MPs max in the house. Superb speech -- fine example of rhetoric -- by John Gummer, who used to be the derided Tory minister John Selwyn Gummer. He spoke apparently without notes, with passion and strong arguments.

However, the final government speech, of which I saw part, was unsatisfying: it appeared that the minister didn’t seriously address points that had been made in the debate. I would have preferred at that point to have had him interviewed by a John Humphries (BBC journalist on the morning Today programme). Radio and TV don’t do rhetoric beyond the soundbite; parliamentary debate doesn’t do cross-examination -- except perhaps in committees, though I haven’t seen many of them yet and rather gather the government has too much control over the selection of chairs (I don’t know how members are chosen).

So, a good debate which I'm sure many people besides me would have enjoyed had they watched it -- and better entertainment, to my taste, than anything on the main terrestrial channels. But the Guardian the following morning had almost nothing on it: not even a mention, that I saw, of Gummer’s speech. Maybe the Guardian’s right: the number of us who would sit down and read even a ten minute speech may be minute.

One of our three good English teachersat Bradford Grammar School, Neville Newhouse, used to tell us not to be swayed by speeches we hear but to make a point of reading them, to avoid having our judgment swayed by rhetoric in the bad, restrictive sense. That was an example of the admirable grammar school emphasis on critical rationality: Susan Stebbing’s Clear and Crooked Thinking was much in vogue, I think. For Aristotle, of course, the logic of Gummer’s argument was as much part of his rhetoric as his appeal to the emotions.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author

Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author has had an electrifying performance in a new adaptation at the Gielgud Theatre, directed by Rupert Goold. It is a great romp, a moving tragedy and an intellectual firework display all at once.

Six ‘characters’, as they call themselves and as the script calls them, arrive at a rehearsal of a quite different play (by Pirandello!) and say they are looking for an author -- presumably a playwright.

In the image (from the programme) you can distinguish the Characters by the black of their costumes and their demeanour.

In due course they persuade the Producer and Actors to attend to their own history, which they ‘enact’ for the company and which, at first, the company try to turn into a performance of their own, though soon realising that will have to wait, such is the urgency of the Characters’ insistence on presenting their own, ‘real’ drama. I wrote ‘enact’ in quotes there because the essence of Pirandello’s play is that the Characters’ performance in their own play is their life. When they switch from their mundane negotiations with the Producer and Actors and their endless quarrelling among themselves and switch into their own drama, the sense of the realness of what we then watch is overwhelming, for the audience (us) and for the theatre people hanging around on the stage.

Six Characters is highly dramatic, first because the Characters’ own, ‘real’ drama is tense and horrific (incest, suicide, madness, heartless betrayal, desperate grief), its effect being heightened -- secondly -- by the horrified response of the Producers, Actors and crew as they helplessly watch its unfolding. Thirdly, there is the uncanniness of the Characters’ duality: they are actual people who turn up during a rehearsal they have nothing to do with and who talk about ‘their own drama’ but are also inescapably in that drama, doomed, they tell us, to continue living it ‘eternally’; they are evidently in hell, or undead, and unable to find release and peace. The uncanniness is amplified when a seventh character appears from nowhere, the milliner and brothel keeper Mme Pace (Italian pronunciation)

(The door opens and MADAME PACE comes in and takes a few steps forward. She is an enormously fat old harridan of a woman, wearing a pompous carrot-coloured tow wig with a red rose stuck into one side of it, in the Spanish manner. She is heavily made up and dressed with clumsy elegance in a stylish red silk dress. In one hand she carries an ostrich feather fan; the other hand is raised and a lighted cigarette is poised between two fingers. Immediately they see this apparition, the ACTORS and the PRODUCER bound off the stage with howls of fear, hurling themselves down the steps into the auditorium and making as if to dash up the aisle. The STEPDAUGHTER, however, rushes humbly up to MADAME PACE, as if greeting her mistress.)

The effect was terrifying. (In the production Mme Pace was replaced by a male M. Pace.)

A lovely instance of the way this play goes is the following. In ‘their own, "real" drama', as now re-enacted for the theatre company but at the same time evidently fully real here and now for everyone, including us, the Father enters the brothel bedroom and approaches the prostitute -- his own Stepdaughter.

FATHER:.... May I take off your hat?

STEPDAUGHTER (immediately forestalling him, unable to restrain her
disgust): No, Sir, I'll take it off myself! (Convulsed, she hurriedly takes it off.)

(The MOTHER is on tenterhooks throughout. The Two CHILDREN cling to their MOTHER and they, she and the SON form a group on the side opposite the ACTORS, watching the scene. The MOTHER follows the words and the actions of the STEPDAUGHTER and the FATHER with varying expressions of sorrow, of indignation, of anxiety and of horror; from time to time she hides her face in her hands and sobs.)

MOTHER: Oh, my God! My God!

FATHER (he remains for a moment as if turned to stone by this sob. Then he resumes in the same tone of voice as before): Here, let me take it. I'll hang it up for you. (He takes the hat from her hands.)

He is thrown momentarily out of his immediate 'role' by the Mother’s sob -- but the Mother was not/is not in fact present in the bedroom: she, like the Producer and Actors, is watching the scene but, unlike them, is part of the family situation that gives rise to the Father-Stepdaughter encounter, and is -- momentarily -- interacting with the Father inside that other reality in which the theatre lot don’t participate. You see the intriguing and disturbing intricacy of it all.

This is a play with ideas, but before I describe one let me say that ‘ideas’ extracted from literature and spelled out as bald propositions are invariably (at least I can’t think of any exceptions) unsatisfying, like bad philosophy. One beauty of this play is that one is never called on finally to decide whether they have to be taken seriously or are simply there to make the drama possible. There’s nothing in the end to stop us concluding that Six Characters is anything more than a satisfying entertainment -- albeit one that puts us through it emotionally and intellectually besides keeping us on our toes and constantly surprising us by its turns. After all, dramatic characters don’t live in the way they are shown living here, so in that sense the play is ridiculous.

On the other hand, ideas that never fully present themselves for analytic examination but are placed in our consciousness by things the characters say, mixed up with all the other things they say, or are suggested by the dramatic scenario etc (e.g. characters can have lives), do for the time being get themselves entertained in our consciousness even though we would rationally reject them in the light of day. The whole play may at one level be ridiculous, but at the same time it forces us to take it seriously.

A key ‘idea’ that seems to demand to be taken seriously is that real people are just as illusory as dramatic characters, who, in the words of the Father, ‘have no other reality outside this illusion!... What for you is an illusion that you have to create, for us, on the other hand, is our sole reality. The only reality we know.’ Thus, ‘… if we have no reality outside the world of illusion, it would be as well if you [to Producer] mistrusted your own reality…. The reality that you breathe and touch today…. Because like the reality of yesterday, it is fated to reveal itself as a mere illusion tomorrow.’

This is, is it not, a well-known and central modernist theme: reality and identity shift from day to day, dissolve under the gaze; a stable world and stable personhood are illusions. This must have been how things felt with a particular new force from (according to Malcolm Bradbury’s narrative, The Modern World: Ten Great Writers) about 1870. I'm not sure that I've ever felt that way myself; or perhaps, rather, I've grown up in a world in which that idea was so taken for granted that it’s simply my normal experience, not to be particularly remarked upon. For instance, it’s as inconceivable, I think, for me to believe in any of the old ‘grand narratives’ as it would be to believe in God.

One ‘truth’ that the play appears to present is that the truth has to be sacrificed to make art. At least, the whole truth does, the truth of every character:

STEPDAUGHTER I want to present my own drama! Mine! Mine!

PRODUCER … but there isn’t only your part to be considered! Each of the others has his drama, too. (He points to the FATHER.) He has his and your Mother has hers…. All the characters must be contained within one harmonious picture, and presenting only what is proper to present.

But the Producer’s truth itself has to be sacrificed, (a) because aspects of the Characters’ truths that are not ‘proper to present’ get presented, and (b) because the Producer’s own drama, to which this ‘truth’ is integral, attains realisation only in so far as its ‘proper’ parts are included in Six Characters. This is an example of the sort of vortex of regression you get into watching this play.

The date of Six Characters took me by surprise: 1921. That’s before the great outburst of post-war modernist works that began in 1922, Ulysses and The Waste Land being the earliest of that group listed by Malcolm Bradbury.

The introduction to the 1954 (Heinemann) translation I found in Surbiton library says that in 1915 ‘James Joyce first introduced his work to English readers’ (‘his’ is ambiguous but it must mean Pirandello’s), and the brilliant and learned Pirandello must have been in touch for some years with modernist movements elsewhere in Europe. Apparently he had already founded and contributed to the grotesque movement in Italian drama, of which I had not heard. And of course modernist experiment in the visual arts was flourishing in Italy with Futurism and perhaps early Surrealism too (de Chirico and co.).

Modernist this work certainly is in its spirit: it has to an outstanding degree that iconoclastic, breath-of-fresh-air, sweeping-all-the-fusty-Victorian-crap-away quality that’s so distinctive of early modernism.

Which is why, if my memory is reliable, I enjoyed Six Characters so much as a sixth-former. I believe I've had occasion before to mention the education I got from Bradford’s (amateur) Civic Theatre in the 1950’s. It was there that I first saw the play, and also, I believe, Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Nature and culture

In search of wellbeing, it being a lovely Friday with a forecast of a miserable Saturday and Sunday, and reading that poverty (and by extension, I presume, relative wealth too) ain’t so bad healthwise when it’s borne in green surroundings, I took my endorphins out for a spin down the river from Hampton Court to Kingston. (But unfortunately not my camera.)

The river was doing its classy autumnal stuff: the water was broad, slow and brown, geese and swans performed their ornamental offices, a cormorant provided a spicy note of evil, a grebe brought overtones of fen and mere while ducks diverged on urgent voluntary errands (1); a barge displayed washing, geranium and a cat; and in the trees alongside leaves deferred their final fall for one more day and even the single green parakeet seemed visually, though not auditorily, appropriate.

Little Dorritt (BBC1) is failing to engage me. This isn’t because it isn’t well done: it’s the usual Andrew Davies job, uproariously excessive and sensitive, and avoids what usually sticks in the gullet about Hovis ads and costume dramas (e.g the recent Tess). I don’t find any of the characters appealing, though they’re well acted, and the plot is too complicated. I'll no longer make a special point of watching it.

But it doesn’t matter because I've discovered a new programme that provides gripping viewing for hours on end; in fact, not a programme but an entire continuous channel: the Parliament Channel. Excellent background for ironing, but if I were teaching English these days I'd actively use it: so far I haven’t seen any committee sessions but have appreciated the expert expositions in the Lords. I'd give the kids a current Bill (stripped down), get them to prepare amendments and government defences in groups and debate them; then watch some of the actual debate. Something like that, maybe, if I could make it meaningful. The point being that English teachers should be teachers of rhetoric, in the sense of the deployment of language (spoken and written) to affect states of affairs. Rhetoric isn't the full brief for English, but it should be a big element.

And my disappointment with Love’s Labour’s Lost (see previous posting; no more Peter Hall for me) was made up for last night by Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, ‘new version' (dir. Rupert Goold): tense, funny, surreal, effects-laden, constantly surprising, acted by real actors of whom none could in my book be faulted.

1. Ans: Auden, ‘Look, Stranger’

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Disservices to Shakespeare

A current production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, left me wanting to protest. The director, Peter Hall, has a great reputation, though I think I had found another of his recent productions disappointing -- can’t remember what it was, though. I've read a few reviews from the main papers and find them all over-generous.

I suppose Hall had to work with the actors he could get at this rather unsought-after venue (the building is new and terrific, the arrangement Elizabethan style but with comfortable seats that seemed all to afford a good view of the apron stage, but the place was half-empty and the audience middle-aged and older). I felt that only one actor, Finbar Lynch as Berowne, had any stage presence, carried conviction and spoke well. The rest were to varying degrees not up to it.

I have to be a bit careful in commenting on how the lines were spoken since my hearing isn’t what it was, but it seems to me that some contemporary actors lack consonants. But on that point I'll stand corrected by persons who can hear better.

More serious, though, was a failure that must have been as much the director’s as the actors’ fault, and it’s one that’s common to nearly all productions of Shakespeare that I see and also to traditional opera productions, especially of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. It concerns low-life, comic and ridiculous characters: clowns, constables, common people, teachersand parsons. Simply, these characters are demeaned in the performance and bear no resemblance to any recognisable type of real person, so that an audience with any social sensitivity will feel uncomfortable at being invited to laugh at people for their deficiencies, their lack of education, cultivated manners and gentlemanly/ladylike qualities of restraint, sense of appropriateness etc. They are played as types that exist only on the stage with no hint of realism -- and the result is they are not in the slightest funny, though some old members of the audience laugh because that’s what they’ve learned to do from an early age, from school productions onwards.

The comic characters are given false cockney or mummerset accents (or sometimes, these days, geordie or Liverpool), fall over for no reason, are surprised out of all proportion when someone pulls on their chains, do ridiculous double-takes, dance up and down on the spot with delight and act out their speeches with unintelligible gestures, frolickings and posturings. Moth, a delightful page character in the text -- which I reread before going -- was simply offensive on stage: his strategy with his difficult lines that were full of intricate word-play, was to make no attempt to make them intelligible but simply to overlay them with hyperactive gesture and clowning. I felt like turning away and blocking my ears whenever he came on.

Maybe this is how it was done in Shakespeare's time but it won’t do today.

In the end the play more or less redeemed itself because a couple of key late scenes were really well directed, so I emerged not too dissatisfied. But I also felt, and still feel, angry because I think Shakespeare deserves better. For example: I think children and teenagers can enjoy some Shakespeare plays, and I imagined bringing along a group from a London comprehensive and their being utterly alienated by this production -- by the language, of course, because in this play it’s peculiarly intricate and difficult, but more because of the unfunniness of what was clearly thought by the actors and director, and part of the audience, to be funny. The outcome would be a probably lasting disinclination ever to try Shakespeare again and a sense of having attended some archaic class- and age-bound event like grouse-shooting from which those in the know appeared to derive enjoyment more from being in the know than from anything obviously pleasurable about the proceedings.

I recalled some awful tv programme in which celebrities had to vote for things to be tipped down the toilet. The comedian Frank Skinner, who I liked when I heard him on the radio twenty years ago, nominated Shakespeare. He made his case by showing bits of purportedly funny scenes from BBC productions - and one could exactly see his point: they were excruciating -- actors behaving, as so often, like tits.

It’s some time since I've seen a convincing Shakespeare production and I suspect that the comic scenes just can’t be done any more. I hope I'm wrong about that, but if not, perhaps it’s better not to put Shakespeare on if the plays contain such characters, and certainly don’t take kids to kids to any such.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Up north

As I may have indicated, I was in Yorkshire and Derbyshire for a few days.

Socially the north is a different country from London -- but so are, for instance, the west of England and East Anglia; that’s because of the far greater cultural diversity of London. Socially the north isn’t a different country from all of the south.

Geographically, though, the north definitely is a different country from the south, no doubt about it -- in climate, landscape and vegetation. Within the north, the towns in the Pennine Hills are very different from York or Scarborough, but both are definitely unlike the south.

Even with global warming, winter still starts earlier and ends later up there, by a month at each end, I reckon. Overall it’s colder. In the south, there are many corners that are regularly sun-baked: flowers bloom amid prolific vegetation that’s similar to that found much further south, in central France, say. Vines grow; wine is made. The trees are the classic English woodland varieties: oak and beech, with less traditional horse chestnut. Moss grows on trees and walls; there are lizards. Think Forest of Arden. Rivers are broad and slow-moving.

The whole of the north was in the Roman highland zone. In the western, Pennine parts, rivers rush down hillsides; they powered the mills of the industrial revolution. The trees are ash, elder, sycamore -- the latter an arboreal weed, with soot and no moss or lichen on its trunk. Where vegetation is prolific in the north it’s rank, coarse and damp. The bottoms of wooden fences rot and carry orange mould; the lowest layers of those long forbidding stone walls -- hand built but too regular, as if machine-made -- erected in the 19th and early 20th century around parks, reservoirs and lunatic asylums are permanently damp; any moss they carry is the sort you get around the outfalls of sewage pipes. Women huddle year-round in winter anoraks as they thrust their pushchairs into the gale. Sparrows and starlings, magpies, rooks, lapwings and gulls were the birds I knew as a kid in Bradford.

While ironing a few days ago I watched the breakfast programme on BBC. A smart 10-year-old had won a competition to design a new cover for Wind in the Willows: the sun shone on a lazy river on which Ratty and Mole drifted idly in their boat; ducks pottered. The winner was Harry Jones, age 12.

My old copy has these pics:

If there had been houses, they would have been cottages with hollyhocks in the garden and roses round the door. White paths would have led through the turf over small, pleasantly rising hills.

The other main source of my images of a mythical southern landscape was the Rupert annuals.

In Bradford I knew these landscapes from children’s story books and believed, I suppose, that they belonged in storybook worlds along with knights and witches. It was only on my first trip to the south at 15, hitching overnight with Stanny from Wakefield Road in a British Road Services lorry (speed limit 20mph) that dawn broke over a scene that was exactly taken from the books: this world was real, in Stratford-upon-Avon at 6 o’clock on an April morning. We’d got into the cab at 8 o’clock on a winter evening and descended from it in spring. Apple and cherry were in blossom; swans drifted under willows in a haze of budding leaf.

But in the Peak District I reminded myself how much I can still be affected by a cluster of stone farm buildings grouped in a dip on a hillside, and by the pattern of the blackened stone walls dropped like a wide-gauge net over the bare forms of hills and valleys, with sheep and single barns and small copses dotted between them. By 18th century enclosers, I assume. Will bring back photos next time I'm there when it’s not raining.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Ollie the Manchester Situationist?

Visiting Manchester from Canada a few years ago I used to go for a pint with Jim in The Temple of Convenience, a converted underground toilet. I don’t think it had that fancy awning then.

Flickr image by chairmanblueslovakia

The barman there was the genial and amusing Ollie, an art student or ex-such, as I recall.

Ollie, I now learn, is Oliver East and has produced a series of booklets which Jim showed me, detailing in text and drawing his walks around -- or, usually, out from -- Manchester. Three of these have now been published in a handsome book:

Trains are… Mint
is published by Blank Slate. I got it from Amazon but I believe Waterstones (UK) have it. Ollie follows train lines as far as he can, but the book is about his walks, wherever they took him.

It’s like a graphic novel in style and it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to go and do it yourself because it looks effortless and is so effective. Ollie started off sketching and writing notes in a notebook, but found it too embarrassing and sometimes frightening when violent-looking locals stared at him, so instead of sketching he started taking photos and doing the drawings at home, though he continued writing and getting stares. Evil looks, threatening approaches, belligerent youths, crazy people, sex maniacs, perverts, malevolent officials and vicious dogs are the constant accompaniment of his travels. The purlieus of Manchester are a decayed dystopia touched with beauty.

As a draftsman Ollie is clearly no Hockney but his drawings work beautifully (sometimes he uses a sort of code -- not always intelligible but it doesn’t matter -- for representing cars, people etc) and his pages and double spreads look great. There’s some watercolour colouring of the drawings but it’s always minimal and the whole book hangs together not least because of the limited palate he uses.

I love the commentary. Sometimes it appears in notices and on signs that are supposed to be part of the scene he’s representing. The language and tone and attitude are those of -- well, I'm not sure how to characterise them: urban working-class-youth-ish, perhaps, though Ollie must be at least in his late twenties -- somewhat foul-mouthed, but it would seem only so to the impossibly middle-aged and respectable (so that’s not me then); rude, likewise -- disrespectful of officialdom etc -- devotee of football and popular television -- knowing about art -- very aware of and on the lookout for beauty, which he finds in certain views of stations, bridges, blocks of flats, cityscapes -- a real urban aesthetic: but also trees, countryside, sky -- and ladies serving butties in mobile canteens…. Spelling less than perfect. It’s a style that could make for a good novel or autobiography or something.

There's much more to it than these three sample pages can show.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


I've selected a couple more extracts from Carlyle's French Revolution, and some comments, but is anyone reading these entries? if you'd like the remaining bits, please write a comment or send me an email and I'll finish the job I started.

Back to Bradford

I've recently been back to Bradford, where I grew up. It’s in Yorkshire, the north, the Roman highland zone. (Brits, remember I have overseas readers. At least one, anyway.)

(Click the images to see them properly.)
Great Horton Road, from Moor Fields (my playground)

From up near Beacon Road.

From top of Jer Lane, on our way home from school. (In Standard II at Horton Bank Top Junior School Widdy -- Kenneth Widdowson -- and I were 8-year-old Situationists: this was on one of our deviations.)

It’s colder, wetter and greyer up there. Bradford is built on the moors and it feels like it: the centre is in a hollow but where most of us lived was in former villages on the surrounding hills -- often in 1930s semis (semi-detached houses) on hilltops -- where winds were fierce and rain horizontal.

See the semis on the horizon.

Stone terraces from the 18th and 19th centuries line steep streets.

Old Road, Horton Bank Top, just above my junior school.

Great Horton Road

At times and in places the north can seem simply deficient, in sun, nice greenery, variety of flowers, birds and butterflies. But at other times and in other places, when the sun is out or the sky is wild and you’re on a hill, there’s an exhilaration I've never experienced in the south except on rocky Cornwall coasts or northernish landscapes like Dartmoor.

Nowhere is geography as real as seen from Wibsey and Great Horton, my first homes in Bradford: massive hills, steep valleys, vertiginous hillside roads, sculpted glacial overflows, distant purple moors, the smell of soot and moorland grass and, spread out below and lapping up to the bottom of the quarry from the rim of the cliff edge of which we looked out, a city of stone mill chimneys, churches and houses, with smoke rising vertically.

From Moor Fields. But in 1960 you'd have seen 30-50 mill chimneys, and every old stone building was black.

The pride of Bradford’s woollen mills was Lister’s in Manningham, now cleaned up.

My third home, after two '30s semis, was a large Victorian end terrace house with room for our grandmother to move in with us, was a couple of hundred yards below the mill, on the far side from where this picture was taken.

The houses, including ours (at the far end of the terrace), were black.

I'm going to put more of my Bradford photos on Flickr. Details when they're ready.

Cultural update

Back in business -- thanks to those who encouraged me -- and lots of ideas for more blogs. In my absence I see Jim Medway’s blog has been steaming ahead: he’s even got a shop on it for his arty products.

The bathroom’s in. Attended with Anton an evening celebrating the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who’s terrific even in translation. The panel included Al Alvarez -- he of Suicide and Sylvia Plath fame -- good to see him in the flesh -- and an Irish poet, Nick Laird, whose comments I liked and whose book On Purpose I then bought from the stand outside but didn’t like as much.

Also saw four films in the London Film Festival. Spike Lee’s new one, Miracle at Santa Anna, about a black regiment in the US Army in Italy in World War II, was powerful -- best small battle scenes ever -- and I certainly want to see it again. May have been too long -- not sure.

There was an interesting French entry, Entre les Murs (The Class), based on a book by François Bégaudeau, a teacher who plays himself in the film: the acting, especially by the 14-year-old students in their Français class, was good and the situation seemed real enough, but the teacher could have done with going on one of our better PGCE (teacher training) courses because his lessons were boring.

Finally, here’s ‘Pebble’ by Zbigniew Herbert LINK

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Apols for interrupted service

Faithful readers, thank you for persisting. I haven't given up the blog but lately have been away and enplumbered -- I didn't realise that having the bathroom done prevented anything else happening in the flat, including at the computer desk.

I'm away again next week, too (well, I am retired), but after that, if not before, I intend to restore prolificity.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Art schools, as was

The climate I was trying to create with my scruffy disaffected 4th and 5th year mixed-ability Humanities groups in 1975-7 (that’s years 10 and 11 for those of you under 85, and humanities was English plus history/ geography/ sociology) was that of an art school of the time.

Art school (old style) was what many of them needed -- not to learn art (lots of art students never did that) but to be in an institution that was geared to their age group, that didn’t force a curriculum on them (no timetable, no absolutely obligatory assignments) and in which interests could emerge and be pursued. Often the art students’ interests were in music: a huge proportion of British pop and rock bands came out of art school. I didn’t particularly want my students to become musicians, but I did want them at 14-15 to choose to learn or, failing that, to live in a civilised environment free of teachers’ shouting and nagging and appeals to duty (to do homework, to pass exams); to talk a lot and have interesting stuff around.

I'm not saying I was right in wanting all that, just that the art schools stood for teachers like me with kids like mine as a symbol of a regime that ran on quite different lines and actually had a chance of getting education to happen -- which the standard curriculum and exams had no hope of achieving with many.

Jarvis Cocker recently had a good radio series about the art schools and pop music. Much of it was about the art schools regardless of music and lots of well-informed commentators featured. Angela McRobbie, a terrific sociologist of, amongst other things, youth culture, described how British art schools came into existence in the mid-19th century largely as a result of the tireless efforts of one campaigner, whose name I forget. The result was a system of art schools (strictly, colleges of art, for students older than the statutory school leaving age) more widespread than in any other European country: every respectable town had its own. You could get in without any academic qualifications right up until, I think, the late 1970s or even 80s -- and they were autonomous institutions and not, as later, departments of polytechnics and then universities with all the deadening academic accountabilities to which undergraduate teaching is subject.

The one constraint on the art schools from the beginning was that they shouldn’t presume to trespass on the Fine Art territory of the posh Schools of Art like St Martin’s, the Slade and the Central School of Art; hence they emphasised design and the craft skills -- printing, pottery, illustration etc. Under that cover plenty of real art went on.

Do you know Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden? Terrific artists.

(Those are all Ravilious : see especially this collection)

Well, Eastbourne College of Art, both of them. Eastbourne! Off the top of my head I can’t reel off many other names -- there are plenty -- but here’s one more, David Hockney: Bradford Art College -- sooty, smoky Bradford, headscarves and flat caps -- and Hockney stalking the Swan Arcade in gold lamee jacket.

Jonathan Gould (Can't buy me love: the Beatles, Britain and America -- see previous entry) has a nice bit about provincial art schools in John Lennon’s time:

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Beatles and the grammar school

Gould, J. (2007). Can't buy me love: the Beatles, Britain and America. New York: Harmony Books: I'm not particularly interested in the Beatles but got this out because I thought, rightly as it turns out, that it might say something interesting about education in England in the 1950s.

Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were working-class boys who had got into grammar schools, institutions that were still, despite a claimed post-war equality of opportunity (and abolition of fees), decidedly middle-class in their ethos. The type of the working-class ‘scholarship boy’ now appeared for the first time in literature and drama. Gould brings out the significance of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger.

‘The wider cultural impact of Look Back in Anger stemmed from the
understanding that Jimmy Porter represented a new kind of social, as
well as theatrical, type--an understanding facilitated by the Angry Young
Man designation, which was applied by the press to the playwright and
his character alike. "The salient thing about Jimmy Porter," wrote the
critic Kenneth Tynan, "was that we--the under-thirty generation in
Britain--recognized him on sight. We had met him; we had pub-crawled
with him; we had shared bed-sitting-rooms with him. For the first time
the theatre was speaking to us in our own language, on our own terms."
Tynan went on to describe Jimmy as a spokesman for "the new intelligentsia created by free education and state scholarships ... young Britons who came of age under a Socialist government, yet found, when
they went out into the world, that the class-system was still mysteriously
intact." Look Back in Anger helped to turn the phenomenon of the working-class "scholarship boy" into a national talking point.’ (23-4)

Strictly, as I understand it, Porter and the two future Beatles weren’t scholarship boys at all: scholarships before the war had given some pupils free places at the then fee-charging grammar schools, but from 1944 all state education was free. So the boys were just 11+ exam successes.

More interesting is a later passage about the ethos of these schools and the social class effect of their new availability to bright working-class children.


I hadn’t been aware that an effect of the removal of fees from grammar schools was to drive the middle class away -- and I wonder how Gould knows this. There’s no relevant reference in the notes for these pages. Nor am I sure how true this picture of authoritarian brutality was across all the schools.

An interesting point, however that may be, is that the London grammar school English teachers who joined the new campaigning and self-education group, the London Association for the Teaching of English, were precisely working to prevent pupils like Lennon having that sort of experience of literature. As Simon Gibbons is showing in his research (e.g. in English in Education 42:2, 2008), a key strategy was to reform the O-Level English exams to make them more interesting and less redolent of the alienating ‘academic culture of the school’.

Another bit from Gould, about art schools, in another entry soon.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Monarchs of the Burbs

Inveterate Londoner that I am when I'm not sick of the place, this afternoon I engaged in one of London’s traditional urban pursuits.

Along the north side of the Thames at the western edge of London is a wide alluvial plain, conspicuously destined for early and permanent inundation.

Within this flat expanse one large area, fronting the river, was grabbed for the Tudor Hampton Court Palace and its ground; north of it is the even more extensive Bushy Park where a twenty-minute bike ride delivered me (from Surbiton, lower right), and within which another hour’s cycling on different paths was afforded. And deer-stalking.

Here, under the shade of well-spaced oaks

and amid the bracken, the deer doze or graze or thread their way between picnicking families and careering kiddy-bikes.

But I also brought back some sad pictures: those autumn tints in the row of horse-chestnuts near the Lion Gate are actually a wasting disease that’s afflicting the species in Britain, and that already half the trees have caught.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Stephen Dedalus on Moor Fields

Seeking elucidation in my confusions about Modernism I turned to Axel's Castle by Edmund Wilson (1931 -- 1961 Fontana edition), the later chapters of which I hadn't read since my student days (if then -- I was not a diligent reader, or perhaps just not a fast enough reader to be an academic). I found the following (p.181), which seemed to express the idea I was feeling toward when I asked whether my writing for Rosen about playing on Moor Fields as a kid arose from an impulse to get a handle on the experience or, as I suspected, an urge to make sentences (or periods as they used to be called in Britain and still are in North America).

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wilson mentions, James Joyce writes of Stephen Dedalus:

He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself :

--A day of dappled seaborne clouds.--

The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord. Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours : it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose.

Something of that may apply to me, I think, though I didn't share Stephen's and Joyce's poor sight. Yes, I loved 'the rhythmic rise and fall of words', but what I loved about them was in part that they were 'mirrors' (the right word) for an inner emotional world. Which makes prose in that respect like music, which it plainly is; i.e. at one level it's not about what the words mean but about something else the unfolding of the ensemble does. It's this aspect that I think the 1960s English theorists neglected -- and because I tend to read prose as if it's working the way Stephen suggests, that may account for my slow reading.