Sunday, 23 November 2008

More excuses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Update, misc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 10 November 2008

Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MOTHER: Oh, my God! My God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Nature and culture

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

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

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

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

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

1. Ans: Auden, ‘Look, Stranger’

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Disservices to Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Up north

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

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

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

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

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

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

My old copy has these pics:

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Ollie the Manchester Situationist?

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

Flickr image by chairmanblueslovakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 November 2008


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

Back to Bradford

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

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

From up near Beacon Road.

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

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

See the semis on the horizon.

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

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

Great Horton Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural update

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

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

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

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

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

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

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

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

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

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

Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz