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.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

English and the existential abyss

Philosophie Magazine, September issue: The editorial this month explains that they’ve hitherto kept away from thématiques existentielles, out of a fear of appearing to offer trendy nuggets of wisdom. Now they’ve decided they can’t avoid going beyond ‘theoretical thought’ to take on ‘lived thought’.

I like their concluding sentence: ‘L’ambition est de montrer qu’on peut traiter des vertiges existentiels avec des outils différents de ceux de la psychologie.’ Our ambition is to show that existential vertigos (Loss of existential bearings? vertiginous glimpses into the abyss?) can be addressed with other tools than those of psychology.

In my adolescence, one of those tools was literature. Less the literature studied in school than that in circulation in the sixth form, some of it introduced to us by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956), including, I recall, Camus and Dostoevsky. Also Salinger, Sartre (fiction and plays), Beckett and Kerouac, and contemporary French plays put on at Bradford’s amateur Civic Theatre: Anouilh, Giroudoux, Cocteau. Films in a similar vein were shown there, equally powerful in their effect on us.

English, too, like philosophy in French schools, should be addressing, shouldn’t it, young people’s experiences of existential vertigo.

Carlyle's French Revolution: 3 Champ-de-Mars

Whistler painted Carlyle, I find:

So now we know Carlyle had a beard and didn’t shave his head. The fact is, painted portraits don't often tell us much.

To our real business. In his set-piece scenes Carlyle’s history is as gripping as a Scott novel -- as he explicitly intended. Here’s one. (As my intention here is mainly to give the flavour of the book with a few selected passages, in the hope of convincing somebody that it’s worth reading, and even reading out in school, I'll print the extract below without comment.) It's from Part II Book I Chapter 12 (p298 in The Modern Library); Chapter 2.1.XII in Gutenberg online.

The background: In an uprush of patriotic fervour, all France is to swear a universal oath of brotherhood on the anniversary of the Fall of the Bastille, on 14th July 1790, in Paris on the Champ-de-Mars, which superhuman efforts by an enthusiastic populace have prepared for the great event, converting the Field of Mars into an amphitheatre. On the morning of what became known as the Feast of Pikes, cold for July though it is,…

Two hundred thousand Patriotic Men; and, twice as good, one hundred thousand Patriotic Women, all decked and glorified as one can fancy, sit waiting in this Champ-de-Mars.

….On the heights of Chaillot are many-coloured undulating groups; round and far on, over all the circling heights that embosom Paris, it is as one more or less peopled Amphitheatre; which the eye grows dim with measuring. Nay heights, as was before hinted, have cannon; and a floating-battery of cannon is on the Seine. When eye fails, ear shall serve; and all France properly is but one Amphitheatre: for in paved town and unpaved hamlet, men walk listening; till the muffled thunder sound audible on their horizon, that they too may begin swearing and firing! (Deux Amis, v. 168.) But now, to streams of music, come Federates enough,—for they have assembled on the Boulevard Saint-Antoine or thereby, and come marching through the City, with their Eighty-three Department Banners, and blessings not loud but deep; comes National Assembly, and takes seat under its Canopy; comes Royalty, and takes seat on a throne beside it. And Lafayette, on white charger, is here, and all the civic Functionaries; and the Federates form dances, till their strictly military evolutions and manoeuvres can begin.

Evolutions and manoeuvres? Task not the pen of mortal to describe them: truant imagination droops;—declares that it is not worth while. There is wheeling and sweeping, to slow, to quick, and double quick-time: Sieur Motier, or Generalissimo Lafayette, for they are one and the same, and he is General of France, in the King's stead, for four-and-twenty hours; Sieur Motier must step forth, with that sublime chivalrous gait of his; solemnly ascend the steps of the Fatherland's Altar, in sight of Heaven and of the scarcely breathing Earth; and, under the creak of those swinging Cassolettes, 'pressing his sword's point firmly there,' pronounce the Oath, To King, to Law, and Nation (not to mention 'grains' with their circulating), in his own name and that of armed France. Whereat there is waving of banners and acclaim sufficient. The National Assembly must swear, standing in its place; the King himself audibly. The King swears; and now be the welkin split with vivats; let citizens enfranchised embrace, each smiting heartily his palm into his fellow's; and armed Federates clang their arms; above all, that floating battery speak! It has spoken,—to the four corners of France. From eminence to eminence, bursts the thunder; faint-heard, loud-repeated. What a stone, cast into what a lake; in circles that do not grow fainter. From Arras to Avignon; from Metz to Bayonne! Over Orleans and Blois it rolls, in cannon-recitative; Puy bellows of it amid his granite mountains; Pau where is the shell-cradle of Great Henri. At far Marseilles, one can think, the ruddy evening witnesses it; over the deep-blue Mediterranean waters, the Castle of If ruddy-tinted darts forth, from every cannon's mouth, its tongue of fire; and all the people shout: Yes, France is free. O glorious France that has burst out so; into universal sound and smoke; and attained—the Phrygian Cap of Liberty! In all Towns, Trees of Liberty also may be planted; with or without advantage. Said we not, it is the highest stretch attained by the Thespian Art on this Planet, or perhaps attainable?

The Thespian Art, unfortunately, one must still call it; for behold there, on this Field of Mars, the National Banners, before there could be any swearing, were to be all blessed. A most proper operation; since surely without Heaven's blessing bestowed, say even, audibly or inaudibly sought, no Earthly banner or contrivance can prove victorious: but now the means of doing it? By what thrice-divine Franklin thunder-rod shall miraculous fire be drawn out of Heaven; and descend gently, life-giving, with health to the souls of men? Alas, by the simplest: by Two Hundred shaven-crowned Individuals, 'in snow-white albs, with tricolor girdles,' arranged on the steps of Fatherland's Altar; and, at their head for spokesman, Soul's Overseer Talleyrand-Perigord! These shall act as miraculous thunder-rod,—to such length as they can. O ye deep azure Heavens, and thou green all-nursing Earth; ye Streams ever-flowing; deciduous Forests that die and are born again, continually, like the sons of men; stone Mountains that die daily with every rain-shower, yet are not dead and levelled for ages of ages, nor born again (it seems) but with new world-explosions, and such tumultuous seething and tumbling, steam half way to the Moon; O thou unfathomable mystic All, garment and dwellingplace of the UNNAMED; O spirit, lastly, of Man, who mouldest and modellest that Unfathomable Unnameable even as we see,—is not there a miracle: That some French mortal should, we say not have believed, but pretended to imagine that he believed that Talleyrand and Two Hundred pieces of white Calico could do it!

Here, however, we are to remark with the sorrowing Historians of that day, that suddenly, while Episcopus Talleyrand, long-stoled, with mitre and tricolor belt, was yet but hitching up the Altar-steps, to do his miracle, the material Heaven grew black; a north-wind, moaning cold moisture, began to sing; and there descended a very deluge of rain. Sad to see! The thirty-staired Seats, all round our Amphitheatre, get instantaneously slated with mere umbrellas, fallacious when so thick set: our antique Cassolettes become Water-pots; their incense-smoke gone hissing, in a whiff of muddy vapour. Alas, instead of vivats, there is nothing now but the furious peppering and rattling. From three to four hundred thousand human individuals feel that they have a skin; happily impervious. The General's sash runs water: how all military banners droop; and will not wave, but lazily flap, as if metamorphosed into painted tin-banners! Worse, far worse, these hundred thousand, such is the Historian's testimony, of the fairest of France! Their snowy muslins all splashed and draggled; the ostrich feather shrunk shamefully to the backbone of a feather: all caps are ruined; innermost pasteboard molten into its original pap: Beauty no longer swims decorated in her garniture, like Love-goddess hidden-revealed in her Paphian clouds, but struggles in disastrous imprisonment in it, for 'the shape was noticeable;' and now only sympathetic interjections, titterings, teeheeings, and resolute good-humour will avail. A deluge; an incessant sheet or fluid-column of rain;—such that our Overseer's very mitre must be filled; not a mitre, but a filled and leaky fire-bucket on his reverend head!—Regardless of which, Overseer Talleyrand performs his miracle: the Blessing of Talleyrand, another than that of Jacob, is on all the Eighty-three departmental flags of France; which wave or flap, with such thankfulness as needs. Towards three o'clock, the sun beams out again: the remaining evolutions can be transacted under bright heavens, though with decorations much damaged. (Deux Amis, v. 143-179.)….

In this way, and in such ways, however, has the Feast of Pikes danced itself off; gallant Federates wending homewards, towards every point of the compass, with feverish nerves, heart and head much heated; some of them, indeed, as Dampmartin's elderly respectable friend, from Strasbourg, quite 'burnt out with liquors,' and flickering towards extinction. (Dampmartin, Evénemens, i. 144-184.) The Feast of Pikes has danced itself off, and become defunct, and the ghost of a Feast;—nothing of it now remaining but this vision in men's memory; and the place that knew it (for the slope of that Champ-de-Mars is crumbled to half the original height (Dulaure, Histoire de Paris, viii. 25).) now knowing it no more. Undoubtedly one of the memorablest National Hightides. Never or hardly ever, as we said, was Oath sworn with such heart-effusion, emphasis and expenditure of joyance; and then it was broken irremediably within year and day. Ah, why? When the swearing of it was so heavenly-joyful, bosom clasped to bosom, and Five-and-twenty million hearts all burning together: O ye inexorable Destinies, why?—Partly because it was sworn with such over-joyance; but chiefly, indeed, for an older reason: that Sin had come into the world and Misery by Sin! These Five-and-twenty millions, if we will consider it, have now henceforth, with that Phrygian Cap of theirs, no force over them, to bind and guide; neither in them, more than heretofore, is guiding force, or rule of just living: how then, while they all go rushing at such a pace, on unknown ways, with no bridle, towards no aim, can hurlyburly unutterable fail? For verily not Federation-rosepink is the colour of this Earth and her work: not by outbursts of noble-sentiment, but with far other ammunition, shall a man front the world.

But how wise, in all cases, to 'husband your fire;' to keep it deep down, rather, as genial radical-heat! Explosions, the forciblest, and never so well directed, are questionable; far oftenest futile, always frightfully wasteful: but think of a man, of a Nation of men, spending its whole stock of fire in one artificial Firework! So have we seen fond weddings (for individuals, like Nations, have their Hightides) celebrated with an outburst of triumph and deray, at which the elderly shook their heads. Better had a serious cheerfulness been; for the enterprise was great. Fond pair! the more triumphant ye feel, and victorious over terrestrial evil, which seems all abolished, the wider-eyed will your disappointment be to find terrestrial evil still extant. "And why extant?" will each of you cry: "Because my false mate has played the traitor: evil was abolished; I meant faithfully, and did, or would have done." Whereby the oversweet moon of honey changes itself into long years of vinegar; perhaps divulsive vinegar, like Hannibal's.

Shall we say then, the French Nation has led Royalty, or wooed and teased poor Royalty to lead her, to the hymeneal Fatherland's Altar, in such oversweet manner; and has, most thoughtlessly, to celebrate the nuptials with due shine and demonstration,—burnt her bed?

Carlyle’s comment on all this: It was nothing but empty theatre, ‘the highest stretch attained by the Thespian Art on this Planet, or perhaps attainable?’

How true also… is it that no man or Nation of men, conscious of doing a great thing, was ever, in that thing, doing other than a small one! (286-Chapter 2.1.IX)

He contrasts the meaninglessness of such national theatricals with real historical movements such as the earlier uprising of the women of Paris who had marched to Versailles demanding bread:

‘Pardonable are human theatricalities; nay perhaps touching, like the passionate utterance of a tongue which with sincerity stammers; of a head which with insincerity babbles,—having gone distracted. Yet, in comparison with unpremeditated outbursts of Nature, such as an Insurrection of Women, how foisonless, unedifying, undelightful; like small ale palled, like an effervescence that has effervesced! Such scenes, coming of forethought, were they world-great, and never so cunningly devised, are at bottom mainly pasteboard and paint. But the others are original; emitted from the great everliving heart of Nature herself: what figure they will assume is unspeakably significant. To us, therefore, let the French National Solemn League, and Federation, be the highest recorded triumph of the Thespian Art; triumphant surely, since the whole Pit, which was of Twenty-five Millions, not only claps hands, but does itself spring on the boards and passionately set to playing there. And being such, be it treated as such: with sincere cursory admiration; with wonder from afar. A whole Nation gone mumming deserves so much; but deserves not that loving minuteness a Menadic Insurrection did.’

Unlike real historical developments, the Feast of Pikes, colossal spectacle though it was, meant nothing and had no consequences. Anarchy took its course: 'These Five-and-twenty millions, if we will consider it, have now henceforth, with that Phrygian Cap of theirs, no force over them, to bind and guide' -- the immensity and unprecedented nature of this historical upsurge is one of his great themes.

Carlyle’s other observation worth noting: the fatuity of the artificial religious ritual -- he will have more to say of that later, when the Revolution sets up the Goddess of Reason.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Moor Fields and writing-- further

I said (previous Moor Fields posting) that I couldn’t agree with Harold Rosen that in writing about it I was ‘structuring my experience’ of playing on Moor Fields when I was 9. If I was structuring anything, it was a representation of that experience; the experience itself was something quite distinct from a piece of writing that I might do about it. It seemed to me that my experience had not originally registered and had not persisted primarily in words, though it might have been partly shaped by my literary experience.

(I'm aware there’s an argument to be made that even the original experience, or what ‘registers’ and leaves a memory from it, was constituted in language or some semiotic based on language:

“[Wilfrid] Sellars rejected any non-cognitive, non-linguistic conception of conscious experience and awareness: ‘all awareness’, he said, ‘is a linguistic affair.’ There is no such thing as simply taking in the world in experience, as if the senses themselves had some kind of magical ability to latch onto the world: this is the myth. Every episode of taking something in is really a case of conceptualising it, and conceptualising requires being subject to the norms which can only come with the acquisition of a language.” (Tim Crane, 2008, ‘Fraught with Ought’, London Review of Books, 30(12), 33-35.)

Nevertheless, I should have said that Harold was quite right in a more general way: in writing that piece, I wasn’t just producing a composition, doing something nice with words, I was doing something to my experience, or rather on my experience or in relation to it; I was going back to it and working on it, or with it. This work was mainly looking hard at it to ‘catch’ its character and important elements. ‘Putting the experience into words’ meant scrutinising.

Ted Hughes, commenting on the best children’s poems submitted to the annual Daily Mirror Children’s Literary Competition, remarked that they were typically characterised by fresh, sharp observation; the kids were looking at flowers and animals and people working as if those sights had never been described before.

To produce a symbolic correlate for an experience, for instance in words, involves looking at it hard and coming to know it better. In fact, can’t we even say that to penetrate and gain a deep knowledge of something means producing an equivalent in a semiotic medium? It’s most plainly true of painting. Van Gogh invented a new ‘language' of colours and brush strokes, one in which the world looked different from how it had ever looked before. But that’s not what he was most aware of doing; his letters make it quite clear that what obsessed him was what the corn was like. What he was doing, in his own eyes, was identifying the colour and texture of a field of cornflowers disturbed by wind and catching them in paint. The two were the same thing: to identify was to catch in paint -- or vice versa. Van Gogh knew there was something out there that existing visual languages had failed to register and to address which he had to innovate; but his focus was corn and cornflowers, not paint. Painting was the means of observation.

Writing about Moor Fields -- as Harold Rosen rightly saw -- was a cognitive operation, an operation on knowledge, on the state of my head in relation to the phenomenon; it could be said that as a result I knew the experience better, or differently. Moor Fields would henceforth feature somewhat differently in my inner landscape. ‘Sunsets, broad views, wind, street lighting, clear water, the way turf came up in whole sections when you pulled’, which I'd put side by side in a list for the first time in the writing, would from then on be connected, if only in some barely perceptible resonance.

Rosen’s general point -- a true one -- was that writing can have cognitive effects; it’s not just working with words, it’s working on something that’s already in some way in the mind (by virtue of its having featured in experience), in such a way that our knowledge of it is changed, refocused, selectively sharpened, rearranged. (I'm aware I haven't quite got that issue sorted out.) On occasion the change that the writing process induces can be important -- the writer can arrive at a new perception that makes a difference to his or her life; so that English teachers should always reckon with the possibility that the effects of writing can potentially be transformative and ensure that assignments and environment always open up opportunities for that to happen.

At the very least, what I think we learned from Rosen, Britton and Martin was that writing, if engaged in wholeheartedly, could be a process of exceptional intensity and could change one’s mind: we should not fritter away those few opportunities for intense cognitive activity by setting compositions that were trivial or merely conventional.

But Rosen et al, John Dixon, all that generation of theorists of English, also missed something crucial. At one point in my little composition I wrote:

‘from our fields we looked down particularly on one cluster of mill buildings with lines of sloping glass skylights, big ventilation cowls, a square dam walled round and a great chimney--the predominant architectural feature of Bradford was chimneys -- from which the smoke rose vertically and undisturbed above the buildings, above the trees at the back, above the distant glowing moors which seemed like the Scottish border, and into a grey and then a blue sky.’

That strikes me as a nice sentence. I like the concatenation of syntactic subordinations and additions: the chimney from which… , and then the adverbials with both repetition and variation: ‘vertically’ (adverb), ‘undisturbed’ (participle), ‘above the…, above the…, above the…’ (adverbial phrases) -- the last with a dependent ‘which’ clause; and finally ‘into a grey and then a blue sky’ (two adverbial phrases, the second with the conjunction omitted). I could also point to felicitous sonic effects: smoke rose glow, moors border , smoke sky -- and I like ‘smoke rose vertically and undisturbed above the buildings’ -- the two stressed monosyllables followed by three poly- and duo-syllables. What stops one calling that effect ‘aesthetic’ is that the sound connections also bring the meanings into connection.

So, yes, I agree that in the process I'm working on my experience -- reworking it, if you like -- but mainly I think I'm trying to write a good sentence. The urge that motivates writing may often be less the desire to learn (by making ‘more adequate representations’ as part, ultimately, of our adaptation to our environment in the interests of surviving and prospering) than the impulse to create satisfying verbal artefacts; in writing, the thinking (scrutinising, learning) may be less important than the making. It’s the distinctive nature of literary art that those early theorists of English never adequately faced up to.

New building at Waterloo

A propos of nothing, I just liked this, from a train window entering Waterloo, and this blog could do with more pics.

Buildings sometimes look their best before they’re finished. The roof is the now defunct Eurostar terminal.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Moor Fields, experience and English

As a kid I played on Moor Fields, a piece of still unbuilt-on waste land on the borders of Wibsey and Great Horton on the hilly western edge of Bradford.

Recalling something I once wrote about those times but of which I hadn’t kept a copy, I turned again (as in a previous entry) to Harold Rosen’s writings, this time because he’d quoted my piece in a 1970 article on ‘The Professional Education of the Teacher of English’. I'd written it for him in 1963 as my first assignment on the PGCE course: write about a childhood memory. The assignment was Harold’s well-judged attempt to snap us out of thinking in English degree lit crit mode. But he also wanted to use our efforts to make a theoretical point about the teaching of English.

Here’s my composition, as he reprinted in; after, I'll explain what he wanted to make of it.

Fears were disappearing fast at this age. We were still scared of big and rough boys, but not inordinately; we were now prepared to take the risk of exploring their territory. We were sensual, keenly aware of smells of new mowed grass, bonfire smoke and tree bark, which we were now
continually in intimate contact with. We took a Wordsworthian joy (though we never talked about it) in sunsets, broad views, wind, street lighting, clear water, the way turf came up in whole sections when you pulled. My present mental images of times of the year date mainly from this period - late October with dark evenings and the smell of smoke and mist and air still warm; raiding gardens in the dark for wood and dragging it fearfully past lighted kitchen windows and through deserted allotments where cats ran about; then the smell of the smoldering mill band we used to light fireworks, and the huge untidy piles of wood, bits of canvas, branches, old doors;
the lights of the whole city spread out beneath us in the dark, with the last of the sunset silhouetting Beacon Hill or the moors over beyond the Horton Bank Top reservoir; and Saturday mornings at that time of the year were mild and smoky; from our fields we looked down particularly on one cluster of mill buildings with lines of sloping glass skylights, big ventilation cowls, a square dam walled round and a great chimney--the predominant architectural feature of Bradford was chimneys -- from which
the smoke rose vertically and undisturbed above the buildings, above the trees at the back, above the distant glowing moors which seemed like the Scottish border, and into a grey and then a blue sky. Then winter evenings, wet nights, cold, when the streets, snickets and allotments were excitingly stark and forbidding; we explored them in the knowledge that we would return to lighted windows and fires; or we would sit reading piles of old comics by candlelight in the hut where Mr. Livesey kept his painting and
decorating equipment. At night we would take forbidden short cuts across forbidden fields with horses in and through people's gardens; we would prowl round their houses and look in their dustbins and watch them through their windows; we would lie behind walls and listen to men talking and imagine they were plotting a murder.

From school I remember the teachers, the playground, and the building. I remember the atmosphere in the hall at prayers at the end of the day, and the way we had to walk round the edge of the hall. I don't remember much about what went on in lessons, but I remember the classroom and the sort of decorations we used to have. Plants of all sorts were very popular; nature was considered a most important topic, and sticky buds and conkers were always welcome for the nature table. The other important things in education at the age of nine were Where Things Come From (a map of the world on the wall with strings leading to oranges, rubbers, empty cocoa tins, pictures of elephants and seals, all laid out on a table and getting moved so that the strings went slack and got tangled) and Our Lord's Land, from one of the big educational magazines; pictures of soft looking Englishmen with beards and striped robes and donkeys; little white houses with a woman with a pitcher on her head; and then the multiplication tables. Geography was characterized by pictures of cotton plants, eskimos, and Africans in dug-out canoes; it was very unreal, particularly those pictures which showed one ageless-looking child from every land, each in national dress, including
a Welsh girl; to me all except the English child were in fancy dress, and I couldn't believe that these clothes were what they actually wore.

The cloakrooms and lavatories are quite memorable -- dark green paint, low hooks on iron stands and cracked wash basins with special taps you had to press that you only found in schools.

One of the few incidents I remember was when a jet flew overhead -- it must have been one of the early Meteors-and Kenneth Widdowson shouted 'It's the North Koreans' and got under his desk. That had me quite worried.

Harold had been at the Institute of Education for only a year or two and I assume was still pretty much following the intellectual lead of James Britton, the head of department, who at the time was claiming that the job of English was to help pupils make sense of or ‘come to terms with’ their experience. Britton’s articles expounding this view made a plausible case; he’d found, for instance, that junior school children had greatly enjoyed a poem he’d read them about a shepherd who has to leave his warm fireside and go out on a snowy night to look after his flock; the poem worked, he claimed convincingly, because it gave expression to a deep theme of even urban children’s experience, the comforts of security and the need nevertheless to venture outside the zone of familiarity and safety.

Although he doesn’t go into that in his article, in the seminar in which he gave back our essays Harold presented a version of the same argument. What we’d been doing, he explained -- and continued to explain in different contexts throughout the year, as did Britton in his lectures -- was ‘structuring our experience’; experience that had been ‘structured’ could be done more with, was more of a resource for thinking and judging. At the time I sort of went along with it but didn’t really get it and didn’t have the confidence to try to articulate my confusion and doubts. But in retrospect I can see that I had two reservations, both of them right.

First, my experience wasn’t structured or restructured by the writing. It was still there in memory unchanged except for the usual loss and distortion -- though it’s probably true that over time the aspects of the scene that I’d put into the writing thereby got confirmed in memory to the exclusion of others. What I'd structured wasn’t experience but language, leaving the ‘experience’ unaffected. Rosen almost seemed to be making a naïve error.

The second reservation relates to pedagogical principle. If this process of selecting experiences and structuring them through writing (or talking, he added) was so valuable developmentally, what about all those experiences we’d never get round to processing in that way? How many memories could we get through in a school career’s English lessons? Were some experiences in more need of being ‘structured’? (They had an answer to that, at some point: Yes, those that caused us more perplexity -- but on those grounds my playing on Moor Fields at the age of nine would hardly qualify as needing the treatment.) And what about all those people in the world who had had English lessons before writing about remembered experience became a key element? Were they doomed to be deficient, like souls who had died before they could be redeemed by the birth of Jesus?

I don’t think that act of writing sorted anything out in my mind. The reason Harold liked it wasn’t because it had changed my consciousness but because it was, relatively speaking, a nice bit of writing. Its value, if any, was as a literary artefact, not as the trail of a valuable mental readjustment. What lay behind it was my literary reading as much as my memory. In fact I'm prepared to believe that the experience itself had been to some degree structured from the start by my reading, which had been full of accounts of boys doing things away from adults in dramatically appealing settings -- natural and built environments; weathers, seasons, times of day. I was probably being William and the Outlaws.

It was a besetting fault of English teachers like me in subsequent years that we fooled ourselves into believing, or at least claiming, that what we valued in children’s writing was their ‘organisation’ of experience, with consequent benefit to their souls, whereas actually our criteria were straightforwardly literary. What we purported to see as psychological readjustment was in fact literary artifice.

What a precarious base of ‘theory’ on which to go out and teach English. Fortunately, it was supplemented, I presume, by some more reliable feel for what was worthwhile. While it’s clearly true that, in some ways and on some occasions, in writing we do something new to the contents of our heads, no one could ever satisfactorily explain to us why this memory rather than that should be chosen or show that any particular psychic or cognitive benefit had been gained by a particular experience of writing. And the Institute position had no good explanation for why I was right in valuing my second years’ poems about a Viking ship burial.

Nevertheless, I believe that the impulse behind that position was sound. In insisting that what writing could do for an individual was potentially much more than developing an acceptable style Britton, Rosen and Nancy Martin were right. Writing was educationally valuable as more than a clerkly or academic skill for future deployment. The argument about bringing into order something that in the mind was disorganised or vague or ill-defined led us at least to operate with some sense of the difference between trivial and worthwhile writing; we were in far less danger than previous teacher generations of regarding belletristic whimsy or pretentious and insincere (yes) Times-like pontificating, or for that matter escapist adventure and pony stories, as acceptable products of our teaching.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Imagining EveryVille

I liked this challenge, set by Aaron Betsky, director of the Venice Biennale online architecture competition:

Produce a proposal “for ‘a new exurban community’, in EveryVille; an imagined place that has emerged somewhere around the intersection of Avenue Z and X Street, just to the south-west of the intersection of Highway I and the Beltway around Megalopolis, around 20 kilometres from the city’s core.” (Architectural Review, September)

Betsky’s introduction goes like this:

EveryVille: Community beyond Place, Civic Sense beyond Architecture
Imagine every town. Remember where you grew up, a place shaped by your first walk, your first love, your first amazement at color and form and other people; your first humiliation when you couldn’t find your way or weren’t part of the group. Recall the sights, the sounds, the dirt on the street, the wind rustling through the trees, the day the garbage was picked up and the day before that, the trip downtown or to the airport, the place where what you knew slowly shaded over into an uncharted territory that itself receded the older you became.

Maybe you still live in this city, or visit it because your family is there. Maybe you never lived there but grew up in the countryside or in a high-rise. Deep in our culture, however, is the notion that a small-scale community, whether by itself or as the neighborhood in a larger city, is at the core of what connects us not just to a place, but to a sense of community.

‘Discuss’ would be my instruction to the class in the English lesson in which I introduced this extract. I would mean, as always, not just ‘Talk’ but ‘Get writing--use this as a start and think, remember, imagine and perhaps theorise on paper.

Again as always, the writing, finished at home, will then circulate if the writer’s willing, and lead to more discussion and enter the collective memory and shared culture of the class, perhaps to be referred to in passing three months later or to give rise to something in another student’s writing, along with other stuff read from the Architectural Review and relevant bits from novels and autobiographies about places.

It goes on but I find the rest less interesting.

England v Italy

Image from Richard Ellisonon Flickr.

No blogging for the last week because I've been in Italy for an English wedding on Lake Garda. The couple, from Reading, told me that a do in a Reading restaurant would have cost three times as much as what we got which was, starting from 2.30 straight after the ceremony and a walk down the cobbled alleys to the waterside:-

refreshments on the public quayside -- a small bar set up with smartly dressed friendly waiters carving ham and helping us to stuffed olives and other delicacies as well as wine etc; a 30-minute trip across the lake and back in a motor boat reserved for us; a stroll along to a lakeside restaurant where we had a reserved area with tables and were served drinks, then a delicious six-course meal followed by the cake the chef had made that morning and which he cheerily dished onto the plates himself, for distribution by his smart and smiling ragazzi -- all going on to midnight with no pressure for anyone to leave and warm good will and geniality from the staff and even from the diners in the adjacent sections. Plus lovely treatment for the two children, both under two years old. In Malcesine, such was the civilising effect of the Italians’ civility, even the English were nice.

But the question left with me as always -- I've never heard a satisfying answer -- is why is England so much more expensive for hotels and restaurants and transport than the other European countries know a bit, France, Italy and Spain? Is it something to do with the privatisation of everything? Land shortage? Low taxation? Private equity companies? Executive pay? The dominance of the City? The irresponsibility of banks? New Labour? General crapness?

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Modernism again: Hammershøi and Mondrian

Images from the current show at the Royal Academy, Vilhelm Hammershøi: The Poetry of Silence, are familiar to all in the UK who look at the art pages in the papers. (It finishes on Sunday 7th.)

The majority of the paintings are scenes of the interiors of Hammershøi’s spacious apartments in Copenhagen, almost bare of furniture. What we mainly see are walls, panelled doors, floors, windows, vistas of rooms and hallways seen through open doors. Hammershøi seems to be moving away from representational realism in the direction of Mondrian in that he’s interested in straight edges and corners and in areas of uniform colour and texture. On the flat surface of the painting, the lines that represent the edges and corners could mostly be described in terms of simple geometry.

It would be wrong, though, to see Hammershøi as an incomplete Mondrian who operated a bit too early to embrace full abstraction. What would have been lost if he had just traced his edges in thick black and coloured in the shapes with flat colour would have been significant. If the original colours had been kept, the result would probably still, at a stretch, have evoked an apartment; if he had used Mondrian’s colours, that association would probably have been completely lost or else have persisted only very faintly, as just one of a number of possible resonances.

As Hammershøi did them, these paintings are modernist works though they aren’t Mondrian. They are so because in them images of real scenes seem reducible to a 'language', as in Matisse (see earlier posting). The most subtle distinctions in reality -- the different lighting in that series of the same view of the same room, experienced by the viewer as rich and delicious and sensuous -- could almost be (this seems to be the suggestion) 'just' (or, at another level) combinatory permutations of items from a catalogue of colours and textures: each area of paint (almost) is consistent across its whole area: not each square millimetre but each 5 cm square would be pretty well interchangeable inside the shape made by the edges. So the paintings could serve as displays of sample colour/ textures, any of which could conceivably be lifted and used in a standardised way in some quite different painting -- with a different meaning.

Thus the complexity of visual reality reduces to a code or system -- or Hammershøi hints that it almost could, carried to its logical conclusion. The world, for all its sensuous variety, is actually abstract -- each scene is one instantiation of an abstract set of possibilities -- the parole is just the langue. Very modernist, that.

But the paintings intrigue because you can go the other way too. For all the structured and abstract system that lies behind it, the world appears -- when inspected closely, after the first drab impression -- as lively, vibrant. Those large areas of subdued colour are not dead; each colour is a mixture, the brush marks contributing to a sense of frozen motion, a momentary stasis of something dynamic. Thus our experience oscillates between the abstraction and the infinite variety and motion of the actual.

OK, that’s a very partial account and I'd like to go back and check it again against the paintings, but I won’t have time to before the show closes. Also, some of his paintings are of exterior scenes (though mainly architecture, and thus akin to his interiors) and not a few contain a female figure, more often than not from the back. I don’t know how to fit them into my account.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Modernism, authenticity and English

Do modernist literary thinking and practice undermine the notion of authenticity in writing?

I ask because of the relevance to English teaching, which, at least in the mainstream comprehensive school version I started out in, never seems to have had much time for modernist literature and did value authenticity in students' writing. Is there a real conflict there?

The modernist idea was, I think, that there was no such thing as expression. Whatever happens in the heart or out there in the world has no direct line into language: in one place (heart, world) there’s one thing going on, in speech and writing there’s something quite different, an assembling of signs each of which is intrinsically meaningless.

I've just been watching a Prom of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The commentators had seen the conductor, Sir Colin Davies, in rehearsal telling the youth orchestra that for the second movement they should look into their souls and find some reserve of passion and tenderness. The commentators disagreed with this approach: you don’t have to imagine yourself back into the equivalent of the state of Beethoven’s soul; it’s all in the notes. On the other hand, they went on to say, all the love that Beethoven was never able to give wife and family and lover, whom he never had or kept, got poured into his second movements, which were in effect hymns of love for humanity. How can you put love of humanity into an arrangement of sounds mechanically produced by bowing and scraping?

There has to be something in the idea that love etc get into music and are conveyed by it to account for the fact that our experience of music is that it expresses something. Music may be just notes, but their effect can be to unlock or activate feeling. Clearly the modernists were right that there’s no such thing as direct expression -- or at least that only a small part of music involves that, as when the body’s expression of emotion, in a sigh or a quickening of breath, is further extended into the singing voice or the breath blowing an instrument or the arm moving a bow. Beyond that limited part, we can perhaps only say that there must be, between the structures and relations in the sound and those in the psyche, some sort of homology. One can’t ‘express’ what’s in the soul -- one can’t be authentic in that simplistic sense -- but one can construct a semiotic artefact that stands in a recognisable relationship to it.

Of course, one might argue that the facial and bodily expression of emotion isn’t actually expression either: the red face that we take to be a sign of anger is just that, a sign, just as is a word is a sign, albeit the facial expression may have been established not by convention but by biology; it’s different in kind from anger itself. To which the response of the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is that the red face is anger, not something that lies behind an expression of anger; emotion is something that happens in the body.

One can understand the modernist concern. In so much of the ‘sincere’ writing of the previous epoch it was possible to detect not the honest soul baring itself but the language speaking, its genres and habitual ways, its tones of voice, stances and admissible themes; if there was sincerity, it was in the intention and the reader might read that intention into the message, but it wasn’t in the message, any more than deep sympathy is in the Hallmark condolence card. There’s no simple ‘telling it how it is’ route to truth but only the exploration and shaping of the sign system, the verbal assemblage, until it says something you can sign up to and endorse: ‘what that text has turned out to say is something that I don’t mind meaning -- I'll buy into it.’ Or one can not buy into it but simply present the new thing as something that could be meant, to be entertained or not as one wishes; meanwhile it has illocutionary but not perlocutionary force, to use speech act theory jargon -- a statement that nobody’s stating. In any case, once the thing is out there, whether the author finds it ‘expresses’ his or her intention or fails to is neither here not there; whether someone’s saying it becomes irrelevant because it is doing the saying.

So what about English and authenticity? I was searching for a quote that Harold Rosen (see entries on him in the ‘labels’) had used somewhere when I came across his observation that English teachers’ practice, innovatory in the 1950s and 60s, of making the students' everyday experience the starting point for activities in English had led to ‘a huge demonstration of the ability of children and young people to speak with authenticity.’* (‘Speak’, of course, includes writing.)

There was once, at the time Rosen was referring to, a widely shared conviction that school students should be encouraged to say and write what they really thought and felt. Can it be that the implication of modernist literature is that this belief was mistaken? Surely the teachers’ instinct was right? True, there later developed the sense that some of these pieces of ‘powerful expression’ were in fact instances of sophisticated rhetoric from students who had picked up how to do the ‘sincere and expressive’ genre that so pleased their teachers -- while students without that rhetorical virtuosity felt uncomfortable and dried up. Douglas Barnes expresses these doubts eloquently somewhere.

But the sort of English practice that called intrusively for displays of unguarded response and feeling we can agree to have been misguided. It wasn’t that approach that Harold had in mind when he referred to the ‘authenticity’ of students' productions, but any work that contrasted with those ‘bogus, half-strangled essays and perfunctory compositions which have filled mountains of grimy exercise books’. It’s clear that for Rosen ‘authentic’ means not that hand-on-heart confessional sincerity ( ‘A time I really let someone down’) that became the stereotype of some '60s and '70s English teaching, but speech and writing motivated by a real impulse to write, whether confessionally, playfully, ingeniously or hilariously. What he was opposing was the stuff produced in weary compliance with school demands, writing that no child or adolescent would ever choose to produce, usually some hypocritical display of conventional sentiment.

Rosen’s contrast between the false or phoney and the genuine represents not a delusion but a real distinction. One does not want students to be insincere or hypocritical. Authenticity in Rosen’s sense, though, does encompass conscious role playing and the playful or experimental or exploratory adoption of other personas. It isn’t 'inauthentic' to be an actor or to juggle with words. In fact it may be an essential part of a writer’s development: Larkin became Larkin by first being Hardy.

What the modernists would want one to recognise is that when one is sincerely trying to be sincere in language, the operation is intrinsically just as artificial as deliberate verbal experiment; the ‘authentic’ just as much as the wordplay is playing (as in playing an instrument) with a conventional code of signs.

Might it be part of the development of students as writers, once they are fluent and practised and well-read -- i.e. in later adolescence -- to arrive at that modernist recognition about the nature of their activity? Perhaps that’s what it means to start writing texts that have the sort of ‘impersonality’ Eliot speaks of, that stand on their own as a building does or a piece of music and don’t depend for their effectiveness on being attributed to some author’s intention.

*Rosen, H. (1981). Neither Bleak House nor Liberty Hall: English in the curriculum. An Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of London Institute of Education on Wednesday, 4 March 1981. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

Monday, 1 September 2008

What was Modernism about?

What was it about modernity -- the modern condition, post-Darwin and post-photography -- that led painters in the late 19th century and early 20th to reject traditional depiction as false and to see a fragmented surface and shamelessly displayed brushwork as truer?

Although I'm very drawn to modernist art, fiction, poetry and architecture, I struggle to understand modernism even in a single art form, let alone what the forms have in common. Why suddenly, at that point in the history of painting, did Cézanne feel he had to show objects as if their structure was really flat plates make his brush strokes visible with little pretence at representational illusion?

Why in 1907 did Picasso, apparently against his conscious intentions and to his own bafflement and unease, feel impelled to paint the fragmented bodies of the Demoiselles d’Avignon?

(And why did Schönberg feel he had to reject the scales and harmonies that had served for so long?)

Here is Henri Matisse’s 1905 painting, ‘Woman with a Hat’:

Writing about it, T.J. Clarke suggests that representation (e.g. of passion in faces and bodies) had become cheap and facile with the commercial multiplication of images. Modernism (this is me now, not Clarke) emphasises the surface and the unbridgeable gap and difference between paint and reality; the traditional illusion -- verisimilitude -- was an illusion that didn’t work: once you looked at it closely, as paint, it became uninteresting in that the paint marks and painted shapes weren’t worth looking at in themselves. Just as direct expression was an illusion, the new sense of the semiotics of representation -- that it was always (just) signs you were dealing with (a brush mark isn’t a flower or a shadow) -- meant that honesty required you should acknowledge that you were dealing in signs. More than that: you should recognise that there was no access to reality, or certainly no way of representing access, except by signs that in themselves were meaningless, or, if they had meaning, whose meaning belonged to a different order than representation, that of their formal relations, their geometry, for instance.

Something had to be made of the signs themselves, the signifiers: they needed to become meaningful in themselves by being put into a relationship, in the way that musical notes, themselves meaningless, are placed into relationships so as to bring about -- well, to say meaning is to evade the issue: let’s say relationships or patterns that work on us in such a way that they seem right and suggest significance. (I realise that isn’t good enough. There’s a book by Edward Rothstein, Emblems of mind: the inner life of music and mathematics, that I may return to for help.)

Painting was still, up to the First World War, say, a search to capture reality, no doubt about it -- see Van Gogh’s letters: he’s obsessed not with brush marks but with what he could see, with catching the colour and feel of corn in a particular light. But what this involved for him was the search for a new system of signs which could ‘capture’ life -- somehow, despite being just signs. Working on the signs, the formal medium, was the way to rediscover reality -- hence Matisse’s wish, as Clarke puts it, for a form of art that would come to exist on the far side of formalism’. ‘The human [would] only be found again… by pressing on towards the human’s opposite.’ He describes how you can see that formalism at work in the hat and face: they’re made out of a language of separate signs -- shapes, curves, strokes, colours.

In their compositions framed by their new formalisms, artists showed us reality as we hadn’t seen it before and that we immediately had to agree it really was like. With the impressionists, sunny and breezy days came to be realities in a new way.

In the same way Pound rejected the easy sludge of Georgian and Victorian mellifluous verse and forged a new language in which the parts were bright, sharp and hard-edged, as in Provençal poetry-- single syllables; clear, consonantal boundaries; non-iambic stress patterns (see earlier entry on Pound and Kenner). The verse appeared constructed from discrete combinable bits, and yet produced beauty by their formal relationships as well as eliciting, and appearing to reflect or even to be directly mapped off, a vividly sensed reality.

That leads to another set of questions about modernist literature -- and about why it was so strikingly neglected by exponents of the ‘New English' in the comprehensive schools of the 1960s and 70s; a topic for another posting, this one having gone on long enough.