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.

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