Saturday, 26 April 2008

Another mysterious school

The District line of the London Underground sends a probe without much conviction from Earls Court into South London, crossing the river at Putney. I took this line from Wimbledon to Kensington High Street to buy a rucksack, since that street has the biggest branches of Millets, Blacks and Ellis Brigham. On the way there I was excited (such is the phase I'm currently in) to see the back and one end of a fine school building from the raised section of track between Putney Bridge and Parsons Green. It was classic School Board for London so I attempted to take photos on the way back.

[All images -- click to enlarge]

Today I found it on the bike and photographed the front. It’s flats now; recent building and security make it impossible to get round the sides or into the playground at the back.

But what is this school? It’s on New King’s Road, Fulham, and as I said is classic SBL: look at its standard 7-part symmetrical construction, each function (classrooms, mezzanine teachers’ rooms and cloakrooms, staircases and halls) separately displayed through the articulation of the elevation to provide interest along the street frontage. (The simple line of the back, as seen in the shots from the train – a line of classrooms on each floor, varied only by the shaping of the gables – wouldn’t have been tolerated by the architects at the front.)

I now have with me the final report of the School Board for London, published in 1904 before they were disbanded, to be replaced by the Education Committee of the London County Council.

It’s a beautiful production of 378 pages with much of the information I've been trying to get from more obscure sources, including a complete list of SBL schools and pull-out maps. Imagine some public body now going to that sort of trouble before being closed down.

The list and maps clear up a number of my puzzles, but not this one. On the relevant map school on New King’s Road doesn’t appear.

You see Putney Bridge. North of that New King's Road curves east. The school is in that first triangle formed by the road and the District Railway.

The school’s absence leads me to wonder whether it was built after the end of the SBL, in the early days of the LCC’s school building programme – the architect was the same, T.J. Bailey.

Bailey designed for the early LCC education authority the surviving 1905 building on the Mina Road site of what is now Walworth Academy and was Walworth (comprehensive) School, where I once worked. There was talk of the new Academy (it took over last September) demolishing this handsome building, but I see from the Southwark Council planning applications website that it is to be preserved. Good!

Here’s the brochure for opening ceremony:

You can see that a wall originally divided the boys' from the girls' playground. They had separate entrances, the girls to the ground floor and the boys to a staircase to the first floor.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Musical comedy: just say no

I enjoyed a comment I caught on the Today programme while briefly within earshot. A man, I don’t know who, was evidently responding to criticism that people didn’t like the serious plays he wrote or directed or supported but preferred musical comedy:

‘I don’t want to see Oliver just as much as those people don’t want to see my theatre that deals with serious issues.’

Or something like that. I admire, perhaps a bit uneasily, that shameless declaration of ‘elite’ cultural tastes.

Neat, eh? Football & Goldsworthy

From the Guardian yesterday. I think they're really clever.

I've never in the past been at all interested in football but for reasons I don’t fully understand I've started taking an interest, to the extent of watching the odd match on TV and switching on for Match of the Day. And reading the football in the sports pages -- often, these days, before the news. I enjoy skilful play, even though I don’t know the rules and can’t play, and I feel some involvement with players I can recognise such as Crouch, Rooney, Renaldo, Gerrard, Teves (they're the ones I can remember how to spell) though I'm not interested in their lives outside the game. I'm also intrigued by managers’ strategies, tactics and personalities and by the debates about whether Capello knows what he’s doing.

I think there are some terrific writers and broadcast commentators on football and am impressed by the expertise and intelligence that goes into commentary; I admire these people's capacity to see patterns and sense in what to me often looks like a meaningless sequence of events and situations. And I admire the analysts, whoever they are, who made the diagrams above which are both illuminating and beautiful. (Colour in newspapers justifies itself with images like these.)

At the risk of pretentiousness: football is a (more or less) discrete and contained zone of operations and cultural expression where some of the forces and modes of activity at work in the ‘real world’ of politics, business and war are echoed, but in a safe form, without potentially devastating effects on lives. But it wouldn’t be right to regard it as a substitute or displacement, a non-real, play-acting, symbolic world. It’s real in its own right, one of the things we do, answering to needs as real as those that make us go to work or form partnerships. A visiting Martian would have no basis for saying that football was somehow secondary and imitative/ symbolic/ derivative while politics and economics were primary and basic – even discounting the considerable economic role played by football.

I love works like those diagrams that result from taking a chunk of reality and applying a procedure to it, so generating something that wasn’t apparent in the original but was in it nevertheless at some level ; i.e. what it presents is true, though though not in terms of banal realism. This procedure removed time from the reality; the tube map removes scale and precise direction.

How’s it done in the football mapping? Does a computer analyse video images? How is the plotting onto the field done since there are no cameras (are there?) with views from directly on top? Does some kid in the backroom have to trace each move manually on a digital tablet?

Whatever, the result is intriguing. The artefact can be read for what it tells of the originating reality, but also engaged with as a thing in its own right. Chelsea’s less adventurous clustering, Liverpool’s more open and economical moves, were realities, I assume. But what wonderful vortices, with those sudden thrusts out of the force-field (often unsuccessful, I note). Like starlings flocking, or like, as I realised in the small hours last night after I'd already scanned the diagrams, these from Andy Goldsworthy:

The image I really wanted I couldn’t find – I've seen it somewhere: it’s just sticks in the air, thrown by Andy G, in a wind. But this one gives the idea:

Hazel stick throw, LYC, Cumbria, 10 July 1980 © Andy Goldsworthy

I realise from these that in looking at diagrams like the football ones, despite our best intentions to read them as evidence of what happened in a game, we can’t help bringing other imagery to bear, e.g. of clusters of twigs or bird flight, in a way that makes the image semiotically richer, charged with peripheral suggestion.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Bright disadvantaged kids: two perspectives

I've just read a typically insightful article by John Yandell, a colleague at the London Institute of Education (‘Mind the gap: Investigating test literacy and classroom literacy’, English in Education, Vol.42 No.1, 2008). Here I want to note a couple of thoughts it gave rise to rather than discuss the argument (which I find convincing). John represents to us a 14-year-old boy, Billy, of a type familiar to all of us who have taught in comprehensive schools: intelligent, intellectually lively, cheerful and willing and yet seriously inexperienced and unskilled in academic pursuits, and in the favoured forms of written discourse. He’s studying Richard III in an ‘urban classroom’; he enjoys it and makes sense of it, as John demonstrates, at a level far beyond what his written test results reveal.

(‘Urban’ seems a strange qualification for ‘classroom’, as if studying Richard III was different in built-up areas, but of course the expression is really code for a student body of very mixed origins that presents particular challenges to a teacher.)

What strikes me is the radical incompatibility between the two perspectives that a good English teacher (like Billy’s teacher Maeve) is forced to maintain when working with a kid like Billy. In Billy & co. we see potential, signs of life, frequent flashes of perceptive intelligence, brief comments that get the matter just right, willingness to learn. We've no doubt that he has the brains and the attitude to do well. Each of these small manifestations excites us and encourages us to keep on providing the opportunities, suggesting activities, offering stimulating material, promoting dialogue, fostering a climate in which students will feel encouraged to chance their arm in voicing their thoughts; we keep Billy active (or contemplative), engaged, always moving on to new stuff -- and returning to the old stuff he likes – poems, extracts, his own productions -- securing it in his repertoire.

We feel, this is an adolescent who is a going concern, who’s getting an education: his mind is active, he’s thriving, learning, operating on four cylinders, developing, overcoming the disadvantages of where he’s come from (perhaps a poor earlier schooling, perhaps an unsupportive home); he’s doing what’s right for him now, exactly what he should be doing given where he’s at. Other things being equal we’d back him as an educational prospect.

From this perspective we’re delighted by Billy and conscious how substantial are the cognitive gains represented by each apparently small new achievement. Achievement, in fact, is what we’re primarily conscious of; and promise, embryonic resources ready to be developed.

And yet –- the other perspective -- in terms of where he needs to get to, and by comparison with others of his age in privileged schools, Billy still knows so little and can do so little. He’s read few books and has little skill in writing. He’s already 14 and yet it feels as if he’s only just starting. In that perspective Billy’s day-by-day achievements seem a drop in the ocean of what he needs in order to catch up with his educationally more fortunately peers and have their sort of chances in the qualifications stakes. To those in whom this view dominates, banging on about his achievements and potential seems an irresponsible avoidance of the reality of the matter; and a disinclination to impose an urgent forced-march regime looks like a betrayal of Billy's life chances. To which one response may be that education takes the time it takes, and that what such regimes result in can be of dubious value or even harmful.

What does Billy need, ideally? In terms of his own development, some years more of the sort of educational environment that his teacher, Maeve, is giving him; possibly to 18, possibly to 20 or beyond. He and countless others like him in our schools need time and continuity. But in our system the regime in English and the other subjects changes radically at 16 and then again, with university, for those who get there, at 18, in ways I don’t need to spell out. A-level English and undergraduate English are quite unlike English in a good curriculum for 11-16 year olds. With 50% of the population supposed to be going into higher education, it makes me feel that university for many students needs to be more like a continuation of a good comprehensive school, offering an extension of the general education that students need before specialising in a single discipline. (Few of the undergraduates I've taught in linguistics and language studies in two countries have had this preparation; to me they feel unready for the narrowed focus of a traditional university course.)

My other thought is that for all the good research like John Yandell’s that’s going on, no one has yet given us a full description of the longer-term process by which a 14-year-old Billy or his female peer develops into an 18-year-old or 20-year-old with the knowledge, practices and rhetorical expertise to match those of his or her peers who have had a better start. Can it happen? Does it ever? How, by what stages, under what conditions, with what sorts of pressures and freedoms applied, how fast, how smoothly or unevenly? Is progress steady or are there great divides to be crossed? What English teaching and education more generally need is utopian research, research that from a study of what happens now, here and there in exceptional contexts, could provide a vision of a better educational future.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The death and revival of intellectual curiosity

I was thinking this morning - I’ve already forgotten why: I think my education killed my intellectual curiosity.

I'm aware of this through comparing myself over a whole adult lifetime with my friend X who came from a working-class family with no history of education beyond elementary school and who attended the local grammar schools and London University. I went to a posh, three-quarters private grammar school (Bradford Grammar, a ‘direct grant’ school) and Oxford. Because I was considered a clever pupil, in the way of that school I was directed at 12, when we specialised, into the most moribund and intellectually dead subject, Latin and Greek classics, which I exchanged for English – not much better -- only in my second year of university.

X always saw himself as being in a social class and a particular social location and his ‘project’ was always to understand the situation of his class and himself. When I from time to time happened to mention in an off-hand way some particular state or condition I'd identified in myself (medical, psychological, social) he’d be saying, ‘Bloody hell, if that was me I'd be reading everything I could lay my hands on about it.’

That wasn’t my response. I basically didn’t believe in understanding, outside physical science. I'd had learning piled on me right through my childhood and only occasionally (and never in the classics) felt it revealed anything of how the world worked. I had no trust in explanations. X’s academic work was to construct people’s life stories, identify their informing themes and trajectories. I never believed in them and thought they were just stories. I could never tell my own biography as a coherent narrative that made sense. For anything I could say about myself, I could find something opposite that was equally true.

The same has been my experience in any attempts I've made at historical work. I despair at giving any account that’s true above the level of the particular event: I find no convincing ‘causes’ or overall narratives.

For a time I did find sociological explanations credible and exciting, as a result of hearing lectures by Basil Bernstein, Brian Davies, John Hayes and Michael Young at the London Institute of Education: sociology, at last, seemed to be a discipline that could show the hidden workings of society. Increasingly, though, I ceased to be convinced that the structures they described were really there; I failed to detect them close-up in my experience of social reality, in the social transactions I was part of and observed; they seemed more like loose-fitting nets thrown over society and missing all the real diversity.

Although I don’t find sociology’s big stories compelling, or X’s tidy narratives of himself and others, I believe I did regain my intellectual curiosity, after university, through working in a school with intellectually lively colleagues and preparing topics to teach comprehensive school kids in an accessible but academically respectable manner. But I almost had to learn intellectual curiosity again, from scratch, deliberately. I'd find my thoughts and attention engaged by something I had to teach and would tell myself, ‘I could take the initiative and find out about this, I could make this an intellectual pursuit. I could learn for myself.’ Then I'd get the books and read them. I learned again what I think I knew when I was young, that I could pursue interests through inquiry, for myself, and I was able to apply to my own ends the facility with reading and study that I'd acquired from my education.

Thus my curiosity eventually revived, snatched late in the day from the jaws of education.

Voices (1968) and poetry in school

In the programme I referred to earlier about the poetry anthology Voices one image that sticks in my mind is Michael Rosen’s recollection of the editors, Martin Lightfoot and Geoffrey Summerfield, in his parents’ living room when he came home from school, with photocopied poems and pictures all over the floor and them excitedly crawling around it all, rearranging the sheets, picking ones out and asking him what he thought – Lightfoot tall and gangly like a great manic spider.

The point here is that what those guys wanted for kids was profusion, an outpouring of poetry and sayings (and images), in joyous celebration of the sheer fecundity of the world’s voices, literary and oral. That’s surely the right spirit for addressing literature in school, primarily giving the kids a sheer sense of the wealth of it, letting them swim in this vast ocean. That first, ‘discrimination’ and analysis a distant second. What a contrast with… Oh, never mind.

School boards - I should have said...

I should have said earlier: what going me going on this interest in the buildings of the School Board for London in the first years of mass education was some papers by Cathy Burke of Leeds University, soon to be of Cambridge. She writes about more recent school architecture as well as the early history. You’ll find her papers listed at her Leeds page:

I’m looking forward to the new book, School, (out June) by her and Ian Grosvenor, Reaktion Press – see

Saturday, 12 April 2008

‘Queen Anne’ and the London School Board

Those interested in other matters, forgive me for the moment. I'm on a roll with the school board and its buildings.
Click to enlarge

That's Lavender Hill School, Clapham Junction, 1891.

The School Board for London (SBL) took the appearance of their schools seriously. (Contrast many more recent education authorities.) From their final report:

'The policy of the School Board has almost always been to give these buildings, as public buildings, some dignity of appearance, and make them ornaments rather than disfigurements to the neighbourhood in which they are erected.... It was found that the difference of cost between bare utilitarianism and buildings designed in some sort of style and with regard for materials and colour was rather less than 5 per cent. At the same time this ornamental appearance may be secured either by richness of detail or by a dignified grouping of masses; it is the policy of the Board, while studying in the first instance suitable arrangements for teaching, not to set aside the dignity and attractiveness of buildings which the Board have always felt should be a contrast to their poor surroundings.’

Each SBL school is unique and there is great variety in their architecture. Nevertheless, the dominant style is the one called ‘Queen Anne’. The SBL’s first architect, E.R. Robson, explaining that the need for cheapness dictated the use of brick and that the search had been made for the most suitable brick style from London’s past, wrote:

'the only really simple brick style available as a foundation is that of the time of the Jameses, Queen Anne and the early Georges, whatever some enthusiasts may think of its value in point of art.’

The introduction of this style into school buildings is attributed, though not universally, to Robson’s assistant John J. Stevenson, who wrote in justification of it:

'Take the ordinary conditions of London building -- stock bricks and sliding sash windows. A flat arch of red cut bricks is the cheapest mode of forming a window-head: the red colour is naturally carried down the sides of the window, forming a frame: and is used also to emphasise the angles of the building. As the gables rise above the roofs it costs nothing, and gives interest and character... to mould them into curves and sweeps. The appearance of wall surface carried over the openings, which, in Gothic, the tracery and iron bars and reflecting surface of thick stained glass had taught us to appreciate, is obtained by massive wooden frames and sash bars set, where the silly interference of the Building Act does not prevent, almost flush with the walls, while to the rooms inside these thick sash bars give a feeling of enclosure and comfort. With these simple elements the style is complete, without any expenditure whatever on ornament. ... there is nothing but harmony and proportion to depend on for effect. We may, if we have money to spare, get horizontal division of the facade, in this style as in Gothic, by string courses and cornices, and we have the advantage over Gothic that we can obtain vertical division by pilasters…. The style in all its forms has the merit of truthfulness; it is the outcome of our common modern wants picturesquely expressed. In its mode of working and details it is the common vernacular style in which the British workman has been apprenticed, with some new life from Gothic added….'

Lavender Hill School again.

All the above quotes from Kelsall’s chapter in Ringshall, R., Miles, M., Dame, & Kelsall, F. (1983). The urban school : buildings for education in London, 1870-1980. London: Greater London Council in association with Architectural Press.

So what was this Queen Anne style, and what was it that those ‘enthusiasts’ Robson mentions said about it? Here’s a modern historian of Victorian architecture, Mark Girouard:

''Queen Anne' has comparatively little to do with Queen Anne. It was the nickname applied to a style which became enormously popular in the 1870s and survived into the early years of this century. 'Queen Anne' came with red brick and white-painted sash windows, with curly pedimented gables and delicate brick panels of sunflowers, swags, or cherubs, with small window panes, steep roofs, and curving bay windows, with wooden balconies and little fancy oriels jutting out where one would least expect them. It was a kind of architectural cocktail, with a little genuine Queen Anne in it, a little Dutch, a little Flemish, a squeeze of Robert Adam, a generous dash of Wren, and a touch of François I"er. It combined all these elements and a number of others into a mixture that had a strong character of its own -- particularly when they were mixed with skill and gaiety, as they very often were.

The mixture can easily be savoured today, for the style survives in large quantities. 'Queen Anne' covers large stretches of Chelsea, from Pont Street and Cadogan Square down to the Embankment. It breaks out in islands of red brick amid the stucco seas of Kensington and Bayswater; in houses built for artists or the artistic in Hampstead and Bedford Park; in riverside residences or seaside hotels, lively with balconies, turrets, gables, and green copper domes; in the pink and white daintiness of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the immediately recognizable silhouettes of the early London Board Schools….

It was a style which set out to please, and yet it was greeted on its appearance with howls of anger or derision. 'A bastard style', 'a contortion of every feature of architecture', 'abject copyism', 'effete feebleness and prettiness', 'excessively ugly', 'a regular tea-tray style', 'disgrace of the country', 'entirely contradicting the taste and feeling of the day', 'baneful influence over students', 'brilliant but dangerous', 'utterly commonplace' were among the expressions used about it. There were acrimonious and heated discussions wherever architects were gathered together. Aged Academicians wrote furious letters to the newspapers. The public were not deterred, and took to it with almost excessive enthusiasm.'

Starting in 1870 with no useful English precedents, the architects of the School Board for London invented a building type that worked admirably, and, suitably modified, still does. Here’s why, according to Girouard, it was so successful:

‘The 'Queen Anne' Board Schools succeeded because they were cheap, convenient, attractive, and easily recognizable. They were built on small budgets and usually on constricted sites. They were planned in accordance with the educational standards of the day, which required complete separation of boys from girls, as well as separate, co-educational infant schools. All three divisions had to have their own big schoolroom in which all members of the division could be seated, as well as large separate classrooms. The prevalent pupil-teacher system, which meant that many of the teachers had to be supervised as much as the children, made it desirable that it should be easy to see from one classroom into another, and from the schoolroom into the classrooms. Other requirements included lavatories, cloakrooms, teachers' rooms, a certain amount of covered but not enclosed space for playgrounds in wet weather, openings to either side of the classrooms to provide cross-ventilation, thirty square inches of glass to each square foot of floor, and (for reasons which remain obscure) a ceiling height of at least fourteen feet for both classrooms and schoolrooms.’

(Not sure what this school was. It's on the same site as Lavender Hill but seems earlier.)

The board schools didn’t just work; they proved powerful symbols.

‘Towering above terraces of little houses all over London, the Board Schools captured the imagination of the public as impressive and immediately recognizable symbols of enlightenment. They also helped to convert it to ‘Queen Anne’, as the style of the moment and the style of progress.’

Imagine a new building style today starting with schools and spreading to all public buildings, pubs, office buildings and even houses!

Girouard, M. (1977). Sweetness and Light. The Queen Anne Movement 1860-1900. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

School Board Schools again

There should be a picture book – a coffee table book, huge -- of all the nearly 500 schools built by the School Board for London, from 1970 until 1904 when they were superseded by the London County Council. It would have photographs, plans if they have survived, dates, names of architects and previous names of the schools.

I'd then have an easier time with school like the one that I photographed near Clapham Junction the other day. I'd often seen it from the train and wanted to investigate. The plaque on the door of the apartment block (which it now is) read

[click to enlarge]

but I've no easy way of knowing what the school actually used to be.

Handsome, isn't it - and distinctively SBL: the two colours of bricks, the large white-painted windows, the articulated frontage comprising a number of distinct elements, the minimal decoration but a bit of a flourish at the top level. This was known as the Queen Anne style. What was the school originally called?

School Board schools usually had a plaque like

but this school doesn’t.

However, it may originally have had a plaque because I think the school may have been part destroyed by bombs. Alternatively it was never completed. I think what we see isn't the whole thing partly because I could find only an Infants entrance
and no Boys or Girls entrance. These may, of course, have been at the back where security prevented me from going. Elementary schools had, from the bottom floor, three 'departments' for Infants, Girls and Boys. Girls and Boys had separate staircases.

Another indication of uncompletess is the front elevation:

[Do click to enlarge, won't you?]

Working from the left here we see

1. A classroom section, the most decorated, with rooms in the roof and the gable at the front
2. A narrow, set-back staircase section with small mezzanine (teachers’) rooms
3. A 4-part unit of classrooms (facing east, the preferred side; at the back there would have been a hall on each floor).

Shouldn’t we then get the equivalents of 1 and 2 again, repeated in reverse order? That would be the standard SBL symmetrical model, as in Cobbold Road School (said to be in Chelsea though there’s no Cobbold Road in Chelsea now; perhaps Chelsea referred to a big electoral division that also served as one of the Board's divisions. I must go and look at the school I can see on the map at Cobbold Road in Chiswick or Acton.)

Here’s Cobbold Road from a pre-1902 photograph and architect’s plans - note the symmetry:
That’s from School Buildings by Felix Clay, 1902. The architect named, T.J. Bailey, was the second architect of the SBL and the first of the LCC. Clay says of Cobbold Road School that ‘This example may be considered a typical plan of the modern Elementary School as built by the London School Board.’

And, speaking of symmetry, going back to the Clapham Junction school shouldn’t that bay 3 (of 4) in element 3, with its double window on the second floor, be at the centre of the frontage? Doesn't it suggest almost half the building is missing?

If I now look again at my photograph of Walworth Lower School (blog of 10th March) in the light of Clay and later studies, I note that this building too is clearly incomplete. Here it is again:
The work on the left end is really rough. That was the first school I worked in. All the time I worked there, and even when I took the photograph last month, I never realised it had been bombed or left half-built. (The latter is quite possible: T.J. Bailey designed his schools in discrete sections so they could be built in stages, as the population expanded. So presumably there were places where the population didn’t expand and the school was never finished.)

Walworth Lower School, formerly Nelson Secondary Modern School, originally Sandford Row School

was exactly on the plan of Cobbold Road School, except it had two classrooms, not three, in the end element – and had one end missing. It had the key features of the fully evolved SBL elementary school: three storeys each with a hall, two classrooms off each hall with glass partition (through which the headteacher – one for each department: I, G, B – could supervise the pupil-teachers or assistants), a classroom directly opposite the stairs off the landing and two or three classrooms at the end. I could mark on Bailey's plan the equivalent two classrooms I taught in on the second floor.

(Classrooms were an imported German idea; the English tradition was to teach the whole school in one room – the schoolroom.)

Each classroom was designed to take 60 pupils, with high ceilings (partly to ventilate the fumes from the gas lights), windows that opened easily and a fireplace. Well-built, sound-proof, light and spacious – and in my experience never surpassed. And this was what the School Board built for the unwashed plebs; imagine what the middle-class grammar school pupil got (though they were outside the school boards' brief).

Well, you don’t have to imagine. We know from Clay’s book and often from our own experience. Those schools were designed for classes of 30 and had playing fields. Requiring more space, they tended to be built in the less densely populated suburbs where land was available and cheaper.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Poetry teaching 1968

1868, 1878, 1888, 1898, 1908... 1938, 1948, 1958: poetry books for schools, an essential continuity of aims, styles and purposes: at the earlier end Palgrave's Golden Treasury, endless anthologies of Victorian and Georgian poetry (John Masefield, Walter de la Mare) plus Shakespeare lyrics, Herrick and the like, on coarse paper, with crammed typography, grubby; at the latter end Oxford Book of Verse for Juniors, Enjoying Poetry, The Poet's Window, The Albermarle Book of Modern Verse -- still a quite narrow range of English poems (some American), nothing in translation, unloved books that smelled of school.

Then 1968: Voices. Books 1-3, followed by Junior Voices 1-4. Product of the new Education division of Penguin Books, edited by Geoffrey Summerfield; Martin Lightfoot the Penguin person in charge; Richard Mabey - now known as a nature writer - also on the team. Three years to work this project up before it had to show a profit. Everyone in-house, no sub-contracting or outsourcing: graphics, design, photographers, picture research (these books had photographs and other pictures, lots of them).

These were books that kids read on the bus, stole. They had pictures, handsome printing, plenty of white space round the poems. The contents were in part traditional but most excitingly included lots of American poems, folk poetry from oral traditions, children's playground rhymes and jokes, older poetry in translation, Inuit poetry, Czech poetry newly translated.

BBC Radio 4 has just broadcast a programme about Voices -- get it (you have a week) from the BBC Radio website, Radio 4 > Listen Again > Voices at 40. Summerfield and Lightfoot died in the 1990s but we hear from Richard Mabey as well as Michael Rosen, Richard Andrews and teachers who used the books.

It's a good programme that catches well the impact these books had - which I well recall: give them out and that was your lesson: the kids were absorbed. Voices at 40 brings out the freedom to explore and innovate in the publishing of the time, the personalities and styles of the two leaders, the freedom teachers had to read a poem or two or several every lesson if they so wished, the climate among English teachers in NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) that favoured the inclusion of children's own voices and an overall culture that valued liberation and expression - though as Richard Andrews points out this was no mere flower-power collection. (One of the major voices in the books is John Clare with his early 19th century protests against the cruelties of rural life). And in passing there's a reference to recent criticisms by Ofsted of the narrow diet and restricted scope of poetry teaching today.

Good to be reminded that a publishing industry and English teaching profession capable of producing and using a work like Voices existed within the memory of people like me who have only just retired.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

What to do with old towns

I'm back from a trip where I'd hoped to get photos but the light was no good: Hay-on-Wye, Malvern and the Severn Way.

The first was the best. Hay-on-Wye is a small, densely textured, hand-made town, topologically interesting (on a hill with a perfect riverish river below it) and architecturally intriguing. Every building is different, and every combination of buildings creates a different space with constant variety of slope, width, scope of view and angularity. Nearly every building is in stone and slate, and each represents a separate venture by the builders, who’ve been at it since medieval times. Presumably because in modern times, before the book trade came, the place was of little economic importance there are few recent buildings to spoil it – in contrast with Tewkesbury which we later walked the length of, a formerly handsome town made dirty, noisy and visually squalid by traffic and post-war building.

The famous bookshops in Hay are as good as their reputation claims, often representing inspired ‘repurposing’ of good old buildings. This was most notably in Booths: three storeys of bookshelves, generously laid out, on the spacious stone floors on what had been a vast warehouse and sales depot for agricultural supplies (seed and the like). The wooden staircases were wide with fine carved balustrades. And although the town had its gift shops, overall it was not tackily touristy: the book trade was too dominant, and, presumably, the annual festival which doubtless brings a crowd that prefers books, coffee-places and restaurants to ‘gifts’.

I wonder how many sad and moribund small towns that have outlived their economic importance could be revived by taking on some such new specialist function. There are magnificent vast buildings doing nothing much in places like Dewsbury. On our drive back through the Cotswolds old mills had been converted for antiques sales, a development I feel less enthusiastic about but performing, I suppose, a real redistributive function in an economic transformation whereby older objects of utility lose their use value, to be replaced by Ikea furniture and John Lewis saucepans; the antiques sales change this stuff into items of aesthetic and exchange value. But I'd rather see something being made, or something local being sold, in our old towns and cities: is that feeling just a sentimental refusal to embrace modernity?

We stayed in Malvern as a base for walking some of the Severn Way. It’s a once-classy, comfortable Edwardian town, Elgar-saturated, which unlike Edinburgh spreads over the lower eastern slope on one side of a sudden long ridge that springs abruptly from a broad plain. We climbed the hill’s well-worn paths in late afternoon and caught, when the cloud lifted, the sun setting over the Welsh hills, and the sunnier valley behind us to the east; an experience of concentrated and spectacular geography. We saw sun and cloud over the Welsh mountains to the west and the wide plain to the east. But the town, once prosperous because of the water from the springs from which we refilled our bottles, had evidently outlived its point and seemed depressed, with too many charity shops. Due for repurposing like Hay. But the appealing Red Lion pub which its terrific meals in the bar didn’t feel at all moribund.

The Severn was undoubtedly a river of substance but less dramatic than I'd hoped, the water low and hardly moving. I'd love to see it in spate. Evidence of last summer’s flood was everywhere in obliterated sections of footpath, improvised earth defences and plastic bags in trees. It was still good, coming from London and Surrey, to be able to walk for six miles and back along it through uninterrupted countryside with a constant variety of bird life – grazing swans and geese, a heron silhouetted on a topmost branch -- and signs of incipient spring. (The Severn Way did take us under the M50, but that didn’t seem too intrusive.) Tewkesbury, our furthest point, was a let-down, and the hotel we hit on awful, but on our walk back the sun came out, it felt like the real start of spring and Upton-upon-Severn, where we ended, had fine buildings and a riverside pub.

Pershore, Worcs., finally, which we drove through on the way back to London, seemed worth revisiting: an intact old town that at least architecturally looked inspiring. Whether it has much of an economy we couldn’t tell.

Concluding thought on architecture: although we saw nothing notable in the way of contemporary building, either in commercial premises or housing, it does exist – e.g. some of the houses in Grand Designs. What I don’t think I've ever come across, though, is good design of estates, neighbourhoods or quarters, nothing that’s as satisfying as the configurations that arose in old towns as a result of a few major imperatives, like space for a market in the main street, and constraints, like having to use local materials. And the absence of planning regulations governing width of streets, distance between buildings etc. These conditions led to ‘rich texture’ and visual density. Modern planning rules and materials don’t seem to have resulted yet in towns that are good to walk in.

Modern architecture is great at the massing of large forms, and at the detail of handrails and doorknobs, but its intervening spaces tend to be dead: too much roadway and parking space, and boring grass around buildings that are themselves insufficiently articulated to be interesting as you walk past them rather than viewing them from a distance. In Hay there were ‘spaces left over after planning’ that got used interestingly, for piles of timber or for kids to play on. All the new housing developments we saw depressed the spirits, although the individual houses were often inoffensive. The prospect doesn’t look good for these new ‘eco-towns’.