Sunday, 24 February 2008

Technical question -- image size

I scan passages of text, like Ted Hughes' letters, in .jpg form. The blog set-up puts them on the page in fairly convenient form, so you click on them to read them. But then the images are too big for convenience. Anyone know what I can do to get the clicked-on images a reasonable size for reading?
Answers please to

Hughes' boyhood

From this account of his youth around Mexborough (he attended Mexborough Grammar School) we get, amongst other things, Hughes' feeling for poetry as a sort of magic. And note the learning by heart that he did.

From a long letter answering questions sent by an Oxford MA student writing her dissertation 1992, p.621ff) [click to enlarge]

Ted Hughes' Letters

I had three good English teachers. The rest were awful, as were perhaps half of the teachers at that posh grammar school. One thing the best did was read the latest stuff, bring it in, read bits to us and make sure it was in the library. I remember being introduced by Neville Newhouse and Dr Oxley to Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. Iris Murdoch too, I think.

If I was that sort of teacher now – which I'd want to be -- I'd be going to town on Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid, Faber, 756pp, £30 and worth every penny. For those who mainly associate Hughes with Sylvia Plath’s suicide, you get his side of the story, very convincingly, but for me that was a minor interest. (If you’re teaching Plath you’ll need to read the relevant letters.) If you know and like his poetry there’s a mass of stuff about his writing of it; if you don’t know his poetry, you’ll want to after reading the letters.

The stuff about his wild boyhood is fascinating (these are letters that include long, long chunks of what could have gone into his autobiography): having vast stretches of fields and woods completely to himself and his brother, apart from the farmers who adopted him, round first Mytholmroyd, then Mexborough, shooting, trapping and fishing.
Gerald, Olwen and Ted Hughes, late 1940s

There’s lots about his relationships with wild animals: they stood for anything that was untouched by culture, which he experienced as restrictive; he tackles head-on the fact that he killed so many of them. Hughes comes across as sympathetic and, unexpectedly for me, funny and playful – some letters are hilarious. He’s also strange: serious believer in astrology and Robert Graves’ theories about the Muse (key book, The White Goddess). Terrific stuff about Shakespeare; Hughes knew several plays by heart (and Yeats’ collected poems).

What would I do with the book as an English teacher?

(1) I'd read passages with the whole class and get them to talk about them. (Older groups, that is: Y10 upwards. I might give entire long letters to sixth formers to read for homework. But there are also lovely passages about animals, and fishing, that younger students would enjoy.)

(One particular long letter is that to Anne-Lorraine Bujon, starting p621, an account of his development as a poem. It would go better with students who have read a fair bit of Hughes’s poetry, but even without it’s interesting as a poet describing what he had felt he had to do and why at different stages.)

(2) Copy different chunks and give to groups: read this & prepare a presentation that will get the class talking.

Through what I got them to read I would want to convey a sense of what it’s like to be a poet (or at any rate one sort of poet); what poetry is (one version); and what it’s like to be swept away by literature and poetry as an adolescent. For the more academic students, you can track in the letters the stages of Hughes’ poetic development: when he achieved take-off, when he was stuck, false turnings, sterile periods and re-emergences, his own overall sense of his achievements and failures.

Many adolescents will sympathise with Hughes’ determination not to get a proper job and not to waste his life (as he saw it) performing conventional duties. (In the end he had to waste great tracks of time making a living – teaching, readings etc; other time he saw afterwards as a waste – writing prose, working on dramatic productions, farming.)

Hughes is interesting on the teaching of English. (He had a go in a secondary modern school and found the experience ‘salutary’.) He writes to Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State for Education who introduced the National Curriculum, advocating the practice of memorising poetry and even prose (p546).

Here are a few selections:

University English Departments – the enemies of English

This is a great rant against English academics, 1950s to 1990s, and how they kill any creativity that students bring with them from school -- of which there is plenty, he knows.

The question is: Are university English departments any better now? Has the rot of spurious academicisation and denial of creativity in fact spread downwards, right through the secondary school? Seems to me school is now too often a hostile environment for young people who are seriously drawn to either reading or writing; if they pursue those needs, it's against the grain of English, not with it. Am I right?

Note: Hughes knew all about children's writing from his work as judge of the annual Daily Mirror Children's Writing Competition. Brian Cox wrote the Cox Report on the proposed National Curriculum for English.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The curse of the public schools

The British Academy (posh Regency house above St James’s Park) has brilliant lectures, discussion panels and conferences, all free, on academic topics that are of wide interest. I've attended great events on Vietnam, empires, directions in anthropology, the politics of the Middle East, neuroscience and understanding human evolution and Byron. All the top people in the relevant discipline turn up, such is the distinction of the speakers; the audience is full of white-haired men and women as sharp as nails with sticks and helpers, as well as bright postgraduates and professors from all over the country and key people from quangos, the Science Museum, the Army etc. etc. It’s all so unlike the third-rate world of education in the quality of the proceedings and it’s salutary once in a while to watch the real disciplines doing their stuff at full power. The British Academy, moreover, seems to be one of the few public spaces totally free of New Labour bollocks (which the speakers invariably have a go at at every opportunity) – no targets or accountability or key skills, just scholarship, knowledge and speculation.

Last night was the historians Peter Hennessy and Ross McKibbin on ‘The Fifties: Conflict or Consensus?’. It was really about post-war politics, when there really was a consensus between the mainstream of the parties (NHS, nationalisation of Bank of England, coal and railways, Cold War) up to when it ended – date disputed but probably the early 70s. Then we had twenty years of savage conflict (‘Margaret vs Arthur’ as Hennessy put it – i.e. Thatcher/Scargill), with present Cabinet members (then in their twenties) saying crazy lefty things at conferences; and now we have a consensus again, at the core of which is the doctrine that 40% of national income, plus or minus 2%, is the amount that will be spent on public purposes.

One interesting fact, that came out almost incidentally: during the war Churchill and other intelligent Tories had come to take it for granted that the public schools had had their day and couldn’t survive. It would have been easy to include their abolition in the 1944 Education Act. In fact not a single Labour MP (so Ross McKibbin – I think -- said) voted for the amendment to that effect – sadly, there wasn’t time to hear why not.

It was a huge failure. The price paid for retaining the private sector in education – this is a point that’s obviously true but that I'd never realised until McKibbin briefly stated it, right at the end of the session – was that comprehensive schools were thereby ruled out for many years: if the aristocracy were allowed to retain their privileged education with all the access it afforded, it was not politically feasible to deny the middle class their own privileged route, the grammar schools. So we were stuck with the grammar schools, which has meant in London that we’ve never, as I understand it, had a true comprehensive school, even leaving the private sector out of account.

One more interesting fact (out of very many): in 1946 more boys leaving grammar schools entered engineering than any other profession.

Why this gap

No postings for a while, I know. Internet problems – is it the computer, the modem or the ISP? Next most stressful thing to buying a house. The nice part was the Apple Store in Kingston: I went in hoping I might be able to get a session with an Apple Genius (a row of technical experts they have behind a bar in their big stores: if you take a subscription to ProCare, you can book a session with them and they’ll help you, which they really do: the know their stuff and take all the time it needs). Not having the internet I couldn’t book a session (or thought I couldn’t; turns out you can book by phone). All the Geniuses were booked up but they have people hanging around just to help customers, unlike Marks & Spencers. One of these, name of Ben, approached me, told me the bad news about the Genii and asked what the problem was. Well, essentially he sorted me out, for nothing, without even demanding my ProCare credentials, to the extent of establishing that I needed a new wireless router, then went off to uni for his morning lecture. He knew his stuff, unlike the first person on the Belkin (wireless router) helpline later, who gave up and told me the senior technician would phone back, who didn’t and I had to phone, was told I was in a queue and it could be 24 hours, remonstrated and got someone one the line who did know his stuff and got me set up. Cost: Belkin £70, Saturday and Sunday struggling to get the old router to work and unable to do things I'd planned to do online (book a flight, for instance), then Monday visiting Apple and buying the Belkin and Tuesday till 2.00 failing to set it up and tear my hair out on the phone. Grrrr. Think of the blogging I could have done in that time.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Last day in the Loire

The church, seen from the front door of the house.

My last full day here is dark, rain-laden and windy. But it’s not cold and it felt invitingly refreshing for a walk—winter as I like it in one of its guises. I crossed our small valley (with a stream and a mill) and walked up the opposite side from yesterday, onto the ridge again—a vast empty prairie of bare fields, occasional spinneys and the odd farm, the ploughed soil full of flints. There’s nothing pretty about this landscape; it’s like Salisbury Plain in Hardy, an abode of starving penniless folk who barely find shelter from rain and sun. The farmhouses here, though, seemed prosperous enough, each with at least one car.

This could almost be part of Dorset, except for the architecture of the farms, the lack of fences and hedges and the lines of poplars across the valley bottom, laden with huge bunches of mistletoe. And if people in the farmhouses want to grow vegetables for themselves they don’t have a garden but dig up a strip along the edge of a field and plant their leeks and broccoli—all there was to be seen at the moment.

No life to be seen except one small crop of snowdrops by the road, and small birds. (On my first day I had seen lapwings, of which there used to be hundreds in the ploughed field at the back of our semi in Wibsey, on one of the hills above Bradford. Now I hardly ever see them in England—and the fields we used to walk through are long gone.)

Last night at the hour of white wine tasting --Jim and Nigel’s day’s spoils of samples--we were visited by friends of Jim’s: Michel, a teacher who is one of the three deputy mayors, and his wife Anne-Marie. Michel explained about the commune. There’s a council as well as the mayor and deputies. All that and a handsome mairie (originally including a school) for 400 people is impressive; it certainly does something for the dignity and self-respect of this most local level of democracy. Once, though, there would have been many more inhabitants. There were 40 or 50 farms; now there are four, Michel says (so I suppose most of the ones I saw were occupied by tenants), and they’re ripping out the vineyards with EU grants because there’s said to be a surplus of French wine. The commune does get money from local taxes, but also, since its credit is good, it can borrow money, especially for buying buildings.

Below is the house that the commune bought and converted into two flats for rent: