Sunday, 27 December 2009

The bland youth of Waitrose

I'm struck by the faces of the teenage workforce that helps in Waitrose on evenings and weekends. Or rather, I'm struck by how I'm not struck. The faces seem characterless, unformed, blank, untouched by experience.

Waitrose is generally a middle class supermarket; my branch certainly is, judging not least by the number of Daily Mails they sell. Their teenage help seems to be in the same mould; I'd guess they were students from suburban grammar school sixth forms or a sixth form college. ‘Nice kids, but a bit boring’ is the description that springs to mind.

The contrast is extreme with the cockney teenagers I taught in a central South London borough. Their faces (boys’ particularly) were full of character, Dickensian, mobile, expressive; they looked like clowns, rogues, happy chappies, shrewd geezers, bon viveurs. A caricaturist would have had no trouble with them. They were adult faces without the wear and tear.; they had, you felt, begun real life earlier. In dealing with them you knew where you were by their faces.

What accounts for the class difference in youthful faces? I don’t know but some possibilities occur to me. Is the density of social encounters higher in working class areas? does a person interact with more others in the course of the day? Middle class students certainly do more homework and spent less of their evenings and weekend outside the home (and the sporting venues, music lessons etc to which they’re ferried). Where they aren’t is on the street and in the pubs, shopping centres and arcades. As a working class kid perhaps the range of your encounters is wider: for instance, being out more you might meet more adults other than parents and teachers: uncles and other relatives (extended families) for a start, and then all the shopkeepers, security guards, bar staff, dealers, teenage gangs and police whose domain is public spaces. Perhaps you need a repertoire of facial expressions for the range of situations, along with a stock of verbal responses; you learn to make your face reinforce your words.

Is there something in Bernstein’s ‘restricted code’ idea? If some people’s words express their meaning only in a general and not very differentiated way -- if less of the meaning they want to convey is contained in the words -- they may need to rely more on other channels. These include tone of voice, gesture, stance and facial expression. So in all these you learn to be versatile and, literally, expressive.

Contrast your grammar school student who lives a rather monkish or nunnish existence, isolated for hours in a bedroom at home or head down in imposed silence in a classroom. The semiotic traffic of such a person is relatively less with other individuals and more with symbol systems: written texts, mathematical symbols, diagrams; and at the meaning level with facts and abstractions, concepts and ideas.

The level of sheer life of our bookish student -- the intensity of his or her experience -- may well be no lower than that of our kid on the streets but, involving little interaction with people, has no particular call to find expression in the face. Behind those bland, unformed faces will be a great many exciting young thinkers, dreaming and grappling and interpreting and theorising like mad as they restock the baked beans. Meanwhile the minds of which those animated working class faces seem to be an expression are often, I think -- again relatively -- uninteresting and unformed.

The meaning of smoking

My kitchen window, on the first floor (level 2) of our flats, looks down on a road leading to the station. That’s where most passers-by are going to or coming from, often with cases on wheels that provide the first sound I hear on many mornings. Today itt’s cold out there and a man who just passed wheeling his case and looking underdressed was plainly feeling it. But he still had a cigarette on, which entailed keeping his hands, or, strictly, one of them, ungloved.

It obviously meant something to him to be smoking as he walked and shivered and I thought back to my own smoking days, when I too would have wanted to light up while walking in the cold. Or while working outside at gardening or building something. Part of the story is obviously addiction, though addiction is in some usage just a label for liking to smoke. But another part is the extension of our personal zone and the bubble of culture out into the alien environment. Instead of taking in nature in the form of its air we take in as our own smoke, the work of our lungs and their prosthesis, the cigarette. The cigarette, part of which, after all, is inside us, isn’t an external device but a bit of us. Like our own mouths, we can’t see it; it’s an intake channel equivalent to and as intimate as the nose.

Smoking is a defiant declaration of independence: ‘Wherever I go I can make my own environment, breathing my own stuff and not what nature offers and moving in a cloud of my exhalation. Between nature and culture I'm for culture every time.’ Hence the appeal of lighting up even in the most inconvenient circumstances -- up ladders, under cars, on mountainsides, on bikes. It’s an assertion of our self-sufficiency, the mastery of the human over the worst the world can throw at us, of our dominance over nature. (Having written that I'm aware there’s a gender dimension to all this.)

And as such it’s a stance that’s out of fashion. Now we think we’re rejoining nature. (’We’ being, I suppose, more the white middle class.) Once more (the last time being ancient Greece?) we’re animals with bodies that we’re keen to let the air get to, the more the better - just see us on the beach compared with our ancestors of two or three generations back. Any bodily residues on skin or clothing are removed by crazily frequent showering and laundering. Kids at my primary school in the 1940s would wear the same clothes for, it sometimes seemed, the whole winter, including in bed. Farmers, shepherds and navvies, who -- the first two at any rate -- I romantically thought in my teens should be expressing in their dress and mien something of their noble communion with nature, like Tolkienian Elfs or Ents or whatever they’re called, wore old suits and smoked -- and whistled not folk songs but hits from the Light Programme. Nor did they bother about getting soaked: the only rainwear was a sack across the shoulders: let nature -- which is, let’s face it, just a pain half the time when you’re trying to make a living -- do what it will: me, my clothes, my fags and my bits of tunes are all I need to be a king.

The price of symbolic reinforcement from at least one of these cultural appurtenances was cancer and wrecked lungs for some, a risk most of us have judged excessive. But I don’t underestimate the satisfactions of smoking in the open air or despise those who hang on to them. David Hockney, who I reckon a wise man, can’t be all wrong.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

QM final

One more on Shelley’s 1813 Queen Mab. But I shouldn’t be writing these: doing blog entries takes me a significant amount of time -- I can’t just dash them off. I usually write notes and scribble thoughts as I’m reading stuff but it would take a lot of work to turn them into anything more public.

The correct function for my blog, I've concluded, is to keep me writing in those periods when I don’t have a ‘proper’ writing job on the go -- which at the moment I do, which is why I shouldn’t be writing this. Hence the long interruptions to my blogging activity.

Shelley: one other thing he is good at is space -- interstellar immensities, constellations. The last part of section I (of nine) is a description of the journey of the fairy’s ‘car’ up from earth, through clouds and sky and across the extent of the globe and then out into space, further and further away. This is almost the end of the flight:

The magic car moved on.
Earth’s distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round the chariot’s way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory.
It was a sight of wonder: some
Were horned like the crescent moon;
Some shed a mild and silver beam
Like Hesperus o’er the western sea;
Some dash’d athwart with trains of flame,
Like worlds to death and ruin driven;
Some shone like suns, and as the chariot passed
Eclipsed all other light.

Spirit of Nature! here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even searing fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple....

That’s ‘the Sublime’, as theorised by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

Shelley ends the section with his metaphysical notion that that Spirit of Nature that pervades that ‘interminable’ space fills everything there is, so that ‘not the lightest leaf / That quivers to the passing breeze / Is less instinct with thee’. (Both space and time are interminable, infinite: for Shelley the atheist, there was no Creation and there are no bounds to space.)

Still QM

I was a bit dismissive of the verse. As I hadn’t had the chance to take the book back to the library, it was still lying around so last night I picked it up and started reading again and it was wonderful. (Never trust my first responses -- I keep telling myself that but I don’t learn.)

It’s not just the Blakeian outcries against injustice; he’s terrific too on, as it were, the physics and mechanics of phenomena that fall outside ordinary experience, such as Queen Mab (the Fairy Queen), her chariot or ‘car’ and they way they appear and move. In these passages there seems a specificity that’s unlike anything I can think of from earlier centuries and that I suppose reflects the keen new scientific awareness.

On p.4 of this 1990 facsimile edition (Woodstock Books, Oxford) there’s this -- isn’t it wonderful? (This is before the physics and mechanics -- I'll come to that.)

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl,
And stop obedient to the reins of light:
These the Queen of spells drew in,
She spread a charm around the spot,
And leaning graceful from the etherial car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.

I'm surprised some marketing genius hasn’t seized on that and given us the Vauxhall Etherial.

That ‘leaning graceful’ is so good. ‘Reins of light’ I think is a new sort of detail characteristic of the new scientific spirit (later 18th into 19th centuries).

The poem is a mixture of familiar iambic pentameter stanzas and, less often and more near the beginning of the poem, a lyric form of shorter lines of which I don’t know the name, if there is one. It seems the pentameters are best suited for the more technical, if etherial, descriptions. Here’s a lovely pentameter stanza followed by a lovely lyric one. (I realise I'm not quite sure what ‘lyric’ means in poetry.)

The Fairy’s frame was slight, yon fibrous cloud,
That catches but the palest tinge of even,
And which the straining eye can hardly seize
When melting into eastern twilight’s shadow,
Were scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star
That gems the glittering coronet of morn,
Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,
As that which, bursting from the Fairy’s form,
Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,
Yet with an undulating motion,
Swayed to her outline gracefully.

From her celestial car
The Fairy Queen descended,
And thrice she waved her wand
Circled with wreaths of amaranth:
Her thin and misty form
Moved with the morning air,
And the clear silver tones,
As thus she spoke, were such
As are unheard by all but gifted ear.

Then we get her first speech, magnificent in its dignity. Feeble end there, and that extended Homeric simile form (’sheds not a light so... as that which...’) is something I'm glad poets eventually ditched. But I love the way the light from the fairy undulates and sways, and how her form moves with the misty air. She’s there but only ‘filmy’, like medieval angels that were a bit flesh but a lot spirit.

(Light, by the way, for the builders of Gothic cathedrals, was the nearest perceptible thing to imperceptible spirit and God. I learned this from my late friend Barry Bell, professor of architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa, who once asked his group, ‘Are you guys familiar with the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite?’ They weren’t and he want on to explain who this early Christian theologian -- thought, wrongly, to be the St Denis of the first Gothic Church, in Paris -- originated this theory of light.)

Barry’s a huge loss. Three or four years ago he was in his prime intellectually: he’d just got married, had moved into their new house in Toronto and was killed in a stupid accident. There’s a small group of dead people, beyond the immediate circle of loved ones, who I miss, and he’s one of them.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Queen Mab, more

Some corrections to my last posting (I should have read the introduction more carefully): the publisher of Queen Mab was Shelley himself, and he distributed only 70 copies to aristocratic acquaintances. He’d written it was he was 19.

However, pirate copies some years later got the poem widely known to a working class audience, with the result that it eventually became a bible for the Chartists.

The notes include the text of his pamphlet, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, for which he’d been sent down from Oxford in 1811.

It seems Shelley didn’t know Blake’s work.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A. Mitchell, P. Shelley

A couple of us went to this and found it hard to take, not all of it but enough to make us opt instead for the bar to escape cringing and embarrassment.

Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’ is a good poem but the image I have of it being performed at protests by angry students who, unlike the speaker in the poem, were perfectly able with their education to be well informed about Vietnam sums up for me the self-indulgence and dangerous simple-mindedness of many such campaigners: let them try being prime minister or foreign secretary and balancing all the considerations that have to go into wise government. I'm aware that ‘It’s more complicated than that’ can be a regular cop-out to avoid principled action -- but I'm still glad that many of the people I see on protests aren’t running anything. Or the crowd on the stage at this event.

Poetry, including good poetry, can serve the self-indulgence of simple-minded ranters. There was some of that on Wednesday. Some good Mitchell and some good Blake were well read, but were also set to music in a way that seemed to me to be allowing the singers to get off on the highs of idealistic anger and utopian vision: nice experience for them, excruciating for listeners who see them from my sort of perspective as the childish and comfortable privileged still on parade in their advanced baby-boom years -- and disastrous as politics if what you favour, as I tend to, is ‘piecemeal social engineering’, at least in the normal course of things, until things have reached such a pass that there’s no alternative but full-scale revolution - with which you take your chances and which certainly don’t guarantee that things will be better afterwards or that all the death and misery will turn out to have been justified. And, yes, absolutely, that piecemeal engineering can’t be just technical tinkering without something of Mitchell’s vision of ends: there does need at the back of it to be something like his and Blake’s anger at injustice. But the following, for instance (Blake, anti-Malthus) doesn’t amount to a political programme:

Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts
Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale
With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy
And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough
Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper 

With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy 

Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit
In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all 

He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can
Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art

From VALA Night the Seventh - Blake

I know that piece because of a talk by a person whose name I've forgotten at a Hazlitt study day; she read it alongside a terrific piece from Scott’s The Antiquary in which a fishwife reproaches the visiting laird who has upbraided her for enjoying a dram.

On Thursday I was in the lovely King's library on Chancery Lane -- the old Public Records Office, beautifully converted -- with a list I'd accrued over a time, on which was Shelley’s Queen Mab. My interest in this little read work (published 1813 when I think Shelley was 21) arose from Edward Reed’s From Soul to Mind, about how 18th century moral philosophy became 19th century psychology. Erasmus Darwin and Shelley shared a materialist philosophy in which humanity had no distinctive soul but all matter had some degree or sentience and was infused by the Universal spirit. No soul, no God -- these views were so heterodox, indeed dangerous, that they had to be written as poems -- supplemented by extensive notes at the end.

So Queen Mab sets out in allegorical form a deterministic philosophy in which everything, including the mind, is connected in ‘the great chain of nature’. As philosophy it doesn’t work. Most of the verse doesn’t either but in places it becomes powerful in a Blakeian way:

But the poor man,
Whose life is misery, and fear, and care;
Whom the morn wakens but to fruitless toil;
Who ever hears his famished offsprings scream,
Whom their pale mother's uncomplaining gaze
For ever meets, and the proud rich man's eye
Flashing command, and the heart-breaking scene
Of thousands like himself; – he little heeds
The rhetoric of tyranny; his hate
Is quenchless as his wrongs; he laughs to scorn
The vain and bitter mockery of words,
Feeling the horror of the tyrant's deeds,
And unrestrained but by the arm of power,
That knows and dreads his enmity.

More than a hint of threatened revolution there. And what about this for a good atheist rant, his note to the lines

Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled.

The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur, is in no danger of seduction from the falshoods of religious systems, or of deifying the principle of the universe. It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine, begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman... All that tale of the Devil, and Eve, and an Intercessor, with the childish mummeries of the God of the Jews, is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars.

This could have meant big trouble for him and his publisher. Presumably he counted on no one but the initiated reading his notes.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Surbiton Station

Little time for blogging lately but pictures are quick so here’s a recent bunch. On sunny day in London white buildings look terrific: Portland Stone especially, but white-rendered too.

(Incidentally, one of the nicest buildings, the BBC, lovely Portland Stone with Eric Gill sculpture, appeared in a 1930s clip in Andrew Marr’s history programme, at the back of some shot: it was almost black, even though it can’t have been more than twenty years old. We forgot that British cities have probably never looked as sparkling as they do now after all the cleaning that’s gone on in the last -- what, twenty? -- years.

Those white 17th and 18th century churches are amongst the finest sights, but a match for them, in my view, is Surbiton Station: 1937, J. Robb Scott, Deco.

Here it is from the back, seen on the short walk down from my flat.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tristan Hunt's Education

In case I don’t get round to writing about the conversation on Trotsky and Engels on the South Bank last night, let me mention one incidental thing that struck me powerfully.

Tristan Hunt (the historian who has written a biography of Engels) said he’d been hooked on Engels since he was 11, when his teacher at prep school read them the whole of The Condition of the Working Class in England, a chapter a week.

(Hunt is from the strangely named Queen Mary, London -- as if it were a ship, or indeed a queen (it’s actually a university) -- and I've noticed that every scholar I hear or read from that institution seems impressive.)

I doubt whether that sort of teaching is even conceivable in today’s state education system, of which perhaps the biggest failing is its lack of substantial content and denial of scope for deep intellectual engagement.

London, Berlin, Mexico

What a week for treats I could have had in very few other places than London.

Sometimes I fantasise about a move to the country (where I've never lived), partly in preparation for the coming breakdown of environment and society, which may or may not happen, in my lifetime or for years after, but more because I love views of landscape and having birds around other than the magpies, gulls and pigeons that are all we get in Surbiton apart from the occasional parakeet. (I've saw a single swift on a couple of occasions, and distant swallow once or twice.)

But then I think about the stuff I've been able to do this week by virtue of living in London (on the outer edge but with fast, frequent and free trains to the centre).

Here are the highlights.

Monday evening: a conversation between six writers, historians, journalists and other experts on Berlin, the Wall and the division of Germany. Memorable readings from two autobiographical pieces about the East, comments out of long experience by Misha Glenny with a passionate appeal to make the EU work for the sake of the peace and security of Eastern Europe including the Balkans which should eventually be brought in, and a quite different account, quiet and thoughtful, by David Chipperfield the architect on his restoration -- or reconstitution -- of the Neues Museum, with slides.

Tuesday morning in the British Library, looking at stuff I've had on a list for a year or two. Lovely place to work and the system seems to work beautifully. Because I'd got something wrong in my ordering one item hadn’t been delivered so I'll be back today to get it -- they’re faxing it from Boston Spa, their depository outside Leeds (a talk by the LCC Chief Inspector of Schools in 1948 about the London School Plan.)

Tuesday evening: Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the ENO (English National Opera) -- the production got a bit silly but the singing and music were ravishing. I first discovered this opera (1908 0r 1911 as I remember -- that terrific exuberant, inventive, iconoclastic first phase of Modernism) in a tv series on 20th century music, Leaving Home, by Simon Rattle and his Birmingham Philharmonic on Channel 4. I taped it and later bought the DVDs and have replayed them several times. When does C4 do anything like that now?

Yesterday evening: the South Bank again for another conversations: Robert Service and Tristran Hunt on their biographies of Trotsky and Engels. This calls for a separate post. It was as terrific as all those ‘conversations’ on the South Bank are. I've been to loads and never a dud one.

What, in the country, I ask myself, would I be doing at the times when in London I have experiences like these? going for walks? enjoyable once in a while but when the weather’s dull they can be really boring. Gardening? I used to do that and a large part is mindless drudgery.

Could see myself rapidly declining into Marx’s (and Hazlitt’s) state of rural idiocy: fitter and healthier but bored and stupid. So here I stay for the next little while.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Art and neuroscience

In the last couple of days I've chanced to look at three articles which discuss what studies of the brain and evolutionary biology have to say about art and literature. Two were in the London Review of Books and conclude ‘Not much’ (Terry Eagleton’s article [24.9.09] is entitled ‘Darwin is No Help’). The third is an article John Hardcastle sent me about the mutual influence of Vygotsky and Bakhtin and points out that their essential philosophies of science and criticism were poles apart, Bakhtin holding with the neo-Kantians that completely different methods were required for studying the physical world and the arts, Vygotsky that as we know more about the body/brain a unified science will become more and more possible, the key to understanding art lying in a study of the responses it evokes.

Vygotsky, though, wasn’t guilty of a crude reductionism that saw consciousness simply as a biological issue. He was impressed, of course, with the argument that at one level the material is all there is and, along with many others, was looking for ways of accounting for consciousness, will and aesthetic response within a single framework. One way was Gestalt psychology (the whole is different from the sum of the parts), but what they were moving towards was the now influential idea of emergence: while ‘the more complex aspects of reality (, mind) presuppose the less complex (e.g. matter)... they have features that are irreducible, e.g. cannot be thought in concepts appropriate to the less complex levels’ (quote attributed to Collier 1994).

Friday, 6 November 2009


The English National Opera at the Colisseum Theatre has surtitles despite all their operas being in English (I find them helpful).

When you enter the theatre the screen is showing, alternately,

Welcome to the London Colisseum
Please ensure that all mobile phones are switched off


Welcome to the London Colisseum
Write a review

This poses an interesting question. It’s polite to say ‘please’ when you ask for something, which is why it says ‘Please ensure...’. Isn’t it then rude and peremptory to say ‘Write a review’?

No--I don’t think we do find it rude. So what’s going on?

Unlike the surtitles we get once the show has started, these messages are directly addressed to the audience with the intention of affecting their behaviour; the hoped-for response is an action. The difference is in the weight the ENO places on each address.

They really seriously want you to turn your phone off. Because the request is so serious it has to be made seriously polite. Just “Turn your phone off’ might well be taken as rude because it’s undisguisedly an order and one you’re really expected to act on, and we don’t take kindly to being bossed around. It risks reading like, ‘Do we really have to tell you to turn your phone off for a performance, you thoughtless fool?’

The politeness is done elaborately, almost to the point of ridiculousness: how can I, a single reader, not knowing anyone beyond perhaps an immediate neighbour, be supposed to ‘ensure’ that all the phones in the theatre are off? Or is the entire house supposed to come together in some fine upsurge of collective will? It suggests, moreover, that my response is to be some sort of ‘ensuring’ rather than the brutal actuality of (what they’re really after) switching my own phone off, which of course I should have already thought of.

‘Write a review’ on the other hand, while grammatically an imperative, is no more an order than the instruction in a recipe or a suggestion in an ice cream place to ‘Try our new flavours’. It implies, ‘Why not...?’ and as a speech act (ie *pragmatically) is in invitation or suggestion.

In fact, if we get a straight imperative like ‘Write’ in a situation like this, that’s a clue that the speech act isn’t an order. If it were the imposition of some near-compulsory regulation, we’d recognise it by it’s non-imperative form. If we were in a classroom or on a parade ground or in some firm run by Alan Sugar, our linguistic/pragmatic interpretive frames would be different.

(We shouldn’t, then, be telling kids that ‘an imperative is for giving commands’. It is, but only sometimes. Like the ‘present tense’ isn’t about contemporaneity: ‘I'm arriving tomorrow’.)

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Marxism and the crisis

Last night there was a debate at King's College London between the King's academic Alex Callinicos, a respected Marxist thinker, and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, considered one of the best analysts of the economic situation. Both were spoke clearly and effectively with no fudges, making only sparing use of notes -- indeed, it wasn’t obvious that Callinicos had any.

Apart from one rather cheap crack at economics (a good thing that King's didn’t have an economics department because economic theory was so blind to obvious realities -- is it *still as bad as that? I thought there had recently been lots of promising developments in the subject), Callinicos came across as straightforward and humane. Wolf was rather unpleasant, patronising his largely student audience by saying their questions were just what he’d anticipated and implying we were all unthinking egalitarians.

Though completely engaged by the opening two speeches, I began to feel during the answers to questions that this was a non-event and I wasn’t learning anything. The speakers weren’t engaging, so it wasn’t even going to be a draw. (I left half an hour before the end.) Callinicos put the basically familiar argument that capitalism is intrinsically a lousy system and we shouldn’t give up trying for a better alternative just because the USSR had failed, the one serious though flawed experiment in socialism: capitalism, after all, had taken five hundred years to develop -- foolish to judge socialism after only a few decades. Capitalism, as Marx had observed, though now (for reasons he elaborated) in possibly terminal crisis, was the most productive system there had ever been (to which Wolf added that it had spectacularly increased the wealth of many ‘undeveloped’ countries, most notably China). *Planning as an essential concept could no longer be dismissed so readily since dealing with climate change obviously necessitated it; the argument then needed to be about what *sort of planning: planning by elites in the interests of profits, or democratic planning in the interests of well-being?

Wolf said capitalism was here to stay as the least bad system; it was impossible to ‘fix’ it, once and for all, and there would always be periodic failures like the present one (with huge human costs), but, as before, capitalism would always recover because it was the only known way of co-ordinating the ‘de-centralised initiatives of millions of people’, a task too complex for any planning system--even in the relatively simple economy of the Soviet bloc.

It was this point that Callinicos critically needed to address but by the time I left he hadn’t, except to say that developing a democratic alternative would take time (five hundred years?) and that a few academics had done some solid investigation of the forms such democratic planning might take.

He picked up the observation by Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Israel Emanuel, that ‘this was too good a crisis to waste’. He didn’t say what he had in mind in practical terms as the way to exploit it but I thought Wolf’s point (from Popper) about the need for ‘piecemeal social engineering’ rather than utopian schemes had force: this might be an opportunity for such engineering. What Wolf didn’t register, however, was that such engineering, no less than utopian planning, must always be in some *chosen direction -- fixes aren’t *just technical -- and why shouldn’t that be the direction of greater well-being and democratic control? Slavoj Žižek in the current *New Statesman advocates strong support for Obama’s health reforms because, though imperfect, in the absence of any grander possibilities they’re *something and they meet the right criteria. Until Callinicos’s academics produce a clear model of a planning system that will work, perhaps this sort of piecemeal initiative is the only option.

Callinicos was, of course, absolutely right in his critique of capitalism. Wolf was absolutely right that no system has been discovered that’s not worse at co-ordinating vast numbers of individual choices -- in the interests of wealth production. He simply didn’t address the question, what about producing well-being rather than the wealth that’s measured by market price? What we needed was a debate about how to get from here -- Wolf’s capitalism which has all the strengths he describes but is inhumane and destructive -- to Callinicos’s democratically co-ordinated economy that aims at well-being.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Theatre v cinema

What a contrast! A theatre production earlier in the week that left me cross and dissatisfied and the pictures last night. At the BFI (British Film Institute) I saw The Powder Keg, dir. Goran Paskaljevic, 1998, five countries listed but I imagine the director is Macedonian or Serbian: the film takes place in Belgrade, after the Bosnian War and before the Kosovo War. I never thought, 'Look at those stupid actors' – they all seemed like real people to me. The structure of the film was episodic and loosely linked but felt entirely coherent. Visually it was magnificent and I was glad I'd seen it there and not on what now counts as a small tv at home. Just a terrific experience and one that goes on resonating as the Brecht play didn't. I resolved (again) to go to the cinema more often.

The BFI has a great programme of films that I wouldn't see anywhere else and that never make it to DVD. I've really enjoyed films from Greece, former Yugoslavia and Slovakia; I'd love to see some of them again but can't.

The frustrating thing with the BFI is that many of their films, like the Powder Keg, are shown only once or twice so it's hard to catch them on a free evening. Someone who works there told me that's all they're allowed: the film hiring contract limits the showings, the reason being that running a film is 'like scratching it with razor blades'. The material has a limited life, something I sort of knew but hadn't considered the implications of. I wish some global outfit would digitise all films and make them available. The viewing experience would be second-best but better than none at all.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Another theatrical disaster

Perhaps theatre and I just don't agree. Another disaster last night: Mother Courage at the National Theatre. There was one good thing it it and that was very good: Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage (though not as I'd always envisaged that character, as much older and haggarder and shrewisher). Otherwises it was one of those performances in which all the time you're thinking – or I'm thinking because I'm suspecting myself of some fatal blindness in these matters – look at that stupid actor making a twat of himself or herself: who does heshe think heshe's being? Is that supposed to be a soldier?

Or is that just being philistine, like saying of 'Modern Art' “that doesn't even look like a tree".

The set, though spare in its basics, was constantly cluttered and unprepossessing to look at. The songs (as in all theatre, including Shakespeare, where third-rate composers try and write with-it contemporary tunes to the old words) were awful (perhaps with one exception): unlovely and unmemorable, the main singer with a strange diction and some problem with his esses (ss); the band pathetic, or maybe its sound system. And all the time there was unexplainable 'business' going on: an actor made some strange gesture or suddenly ran to the back of the set or got very excited and one didn't have a clue what it meant.

I ended up thinking, shouldn't most of these people, and especially the director, go out and get proper jobs?

Give me films any day. (Though Pirandello was great a few months ago.)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Software for history research

One continuing preoccupation over the past three weeks has been our History of English Teaching project (Walworth School being my assignment, shared with colleague Pat(rick)). We now have loads of data enough for me to make a start on writing. But first I have to organise our material it and I've spent quite a bit of time looking for Mac software that will help.

(I've also I think found some word processing/text editing applications that will free me from Word, which I hate for its constant ‘helpful’ automated interferences but appreciate for some nice features like moving the mouse across text can be set to select whole words -- I haven’t found that facility in any of the others yet. At the moment NeoOffice (free; a Mac version of OpenOffice) is my favourite.)

Organising data: we’ve got interview transcripts, school documents from the 1940s and 1950s, articles and books and the notes we’ve made on them, testimony that people have sent us as email messages or Word attachments, copies of London County Council documents, pieces of pupils' work, photographs; on top of that there are own notes, drafts etc on topics rather than individual sources. Writing a single sentence of our history might involve using information or quotations from several of these, all needing to be referenced; so each item will clearly need to have some short identifier, ‘LCC 1951 p.3’, ‘Dixon int 2009d p.4’, ‘Harvey interview 229’. Not all those references may make it into the final publication but they need to be there for us to go back to if we need to.

If I had been working as a historian twenty years ago, I imagine that for each item I'd have written one, several or a great many index cards, each with a separate quote or note and each with its laboriously copied-out source reference at the top and one or more index terms for sorting and locating. But I've only recently started doing history and expect software applications to take a lot of the drudgery out of the task.

My preference to write a single set of notes and quotes on an article or book (I've used the bibliographic package EndNote for that for several years now, though I haven’t been doing historical research) and then, later, in writing the draft, to copy and paste chunks across or simply take the gist of a point and rephrase it. I like having the notes on an item as a single text because sometimes I'll read right through it to remind myself of what was covered by the item as a whole and to look for points that might be relevant to my current task. But it would be nice for those continuous notes to be a set of digital index cards as well (each with its source reference), that I can move about and arrange under different headings and, indeed, use in many different projects. So I want an application that will meet that need, and I haven’t found it yet. Historians must have developed something that would do the job. Next I'll look on the websites of the various historical associations.

Monday, 26 October 2009


26 October 2009
Out on the bike this morning (lovely day) I paused and drafted my manifesto. Here it is:

1 Restore income equality to 1950s levels

2 Prepare for the coming disasters (climate change plus oil shortage), ensuring the burden is equally shared

3 In public services, replace Benthamite ideology (blind rationality to the exclusion of value and ends: auditing, targeting and evaluating definables, ignoring vital indefinables) with Enlightenment values from Hume and Adam Smith (his emphasis on decent human relations as well as the currently emphasised economic theory)

4 Reform the civil service so it stops being a dead weight on all good developments. (Christ knows how you do this.)

Enlightened blogging

Too much other stuff in the last three weeks but I realise the only way with a blog is to make yourself keep up with it. Those who are good at this must presumably put all their scraps of ideas and notes onto the blog the moment they occur, so the blog functions as almost their notebook or scrapbook. I find it hard to do that because I see the blog as publication, thus imposing an obligation to make it a bit polished. I can’t do it without spending time on reworking. And I'm less happy to devote the time when I've already got all the writing work I want. The blog is great for when there’s nothing else on the go.

One thing on the go is turning a talk into an article. The theme was ‘Is English an Enlightenment project?’. That is, in the focus I chose, is English essentially about truth and reason? I got thinking about the topic because of talks we’ve had in our London English Research Group from philosophers who emphasise the continuing relevance of Enlightenment notions (Kant, Hegel and some recent Americans) in education, as a counterweight to all the dumbing-down and reductive ideas that are around. The article has to be a lot shorter so I've basically ditched the points that addressed what our philosophers said about, for instance, inferentialism and abstraction and have focused on English and knowledge.

In the course of my slow progress on that I've been reading more stuff about the Enlightenment and Romanticism, trying to get clear about the relationship between them. I liked Aidan Day’s argument (Romanticism, 1996) that (a) the Enlightenment (e.g. Adam Smith) was much more about feeling, human sympathy and imagination than is usually supposed and (b) Wordsworth and Coleridge in their radical younger years were thoroughly Enlightenment thinkers and only became Romantics when they lost their political idealism and retreated into political reaction and the cult of individual aesthetic feeling, with a big dose of religion and mysticism.

Then I find that one of my oldest friends has been thinking about the same stuff, initially in the context of the disastrous ideology that currently dominates social work (his original field), and in fact rules right across the public sector, including education. Bill identifies this as the still vigorous utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, a philosophy that was a bastard child of the Enlightenment that retained its rationality in the form of mechanical calculation and forgets the importance David Hume and Adam Smith attached to ends rather than means, to ‘moral sentiment’ (human sympathy and solidarity) and to confining rationality (and market forces) to those areas in which they were appropriate.

I don’t have all this straight because I’ve never read much of that 18th and 19th century philosophy but my provisional conclusion for English is that it should clearly align itself with the Enlightenment values of Hume and Smith rather than Bentham, and equally should avoid the dead end of Romanticism’s retreat into what Fred Inglis called ‘cherishing private souls’, a phrase taken up by Douglas and Dorothy Barnes to great effect in their 1984 Versions of English.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Walworth/Mina Road research

Just to say, if anyone wants to get in touch about our research into English teaching at Walworth School in the post-war years (1945-65), there's now an email address:

Thanks to Judith Richards (Wild when she taught at Walworth) for sending the pics from New Zealand.

Blind alleys

Discussion with friend the other day: blind alleys, the value of, how we prize getting side-tracked in the library by something one hadn’t gone in there to find, or at home by taking down on impulse some book one hasn’t read for years, or ever, and settling to read it. In our version of the intellectual life (if we can pretentiously so dignify it) there has to be an oscillation between focused and specific study on the one hand and browsing on the other. Just as a species stays vigorous by mixing and breeding outside the family circle, and people stay interesting by the range of conversations and encounters they let themselves in for, so the way we think needs constant, unprespecified stimulus by what we find up ‘blind alleys’.

Blind alleys look blind because we can’t when we enter them see any way out that connects with where we ‘should’ be going. And indeed there may be no connection, or it may be years before we see one. We go up blind alleys when we ‘should’ be doing something else -- something on our to-do list (or, more likely, these days, on someone else’s to-do list they kindly maintain for us). Think of everything you need to do, write it down on a list -- then heed any strong impulse to do something else completely, something that presents itself as exactly what your soul needs you to do at the moment. I think our instinct for what alleys are worth going up gets pretty reliable with experience.

Giving in to such impulses may make us less productive in terms of turning out articles and getting our marking done for deadlines, but I think it makes us in certain respects better teachers and researchers, as well as more interesting people, because of the range of reference we can bring. We can draw on a rich and unique tissue of semiotic connections; everything has more connections in our minds.

A colleague’s son found school physics boring because the teacher knew only the syllabus and then found university physics inspiring because the teacher made links to the whole universe of knowledge and ideas that he knew about in his/her bones.

We were in Vienna for the history of education strand of a conference -- so went off on a blind alley that had nothing to do with education or with the supposed purpose of our stay; we spent a day investigating ‘Red Vienna’, the public housing schemes built under the socialist city government of the 1920s and early 1930s, the most famous of which was Karl Marx-Hof.

But of course Rotes Wien wasn’t in the end unrelated to our ‘real’ business, which was the teaching of English in the post-war years in a Labour London that was building its own new housing -- into which many of the pupils we’re now interviewing as older adults moved with their families. On the fourth year English curriculum at Walworth (Comprehensive) School in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, public housing was a topic for writing, reading and discussion -- and Simon Clements, one of the instigating teachers, had been going to be an architect. What animated some key English teachers of the 1950s was a similar spirit to that of the Vienna architects and planners of the previous post-war period.

In Saturday’s Guardian (p.12) physicists express their worry that the freedom they prize to explore blind alleys, a liberty to which they attribute many of the great discoveries of British science, is under threat from a government requirement that to get funding research projects must be likely to benefit the economy. ‘The university’s role of pulling in and nurturing deep thinkers will be sidelined in favour of people who can turn profit by making better widgets’. Moreover, recruitment will suffer because current students went in for physics ‘because they wanted to do pure knowledge and curiosity-driven work...’ (survey quoted) -- and such pursuits require permission precisely to pursue curiosity.

It goes without saying that the same goes for the humanities and social science.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


In this politically depressing time, oddly, I'm feeling more politically optimistic than for a long time. Or part of me is. (I'm not going so far as to say politically active.)

Some particular things have helped. The New Statesman has become authoritative -- it now has some of the key players writing in it. In recent issues we’ve had Danny Blanchflower, the dissident Monetary Policy Committee member who alone turned out to have got it right about the coming receession, and the late G.A. Cohen -- a posthumous contribution on the appeal and the difficulty of socialism. (Jon Cruddas quoted him in a lecture the other day -- see below.)

I read Cohen’s obituary, too, and that sent me to read the less technical parts of one of his books in which he argues that, yes, what seemed to many the first serious and principled stab at a non-capitalist (Marxist) society, the USSR, turned out not to have been that, but that didn’t mean there was no point any longer in looking for alternatives to capitalism as ways of organising economy and society; he refused to draw the lesson of despair from that collapse. I immediately felt he was right.

I heard Jon Cruddas (left-wing Labour MP, possible leadership contender) who was intelligent, sane and well-read; as well as a list of good policies, he urged optimism and spirit: a better society is worth fighting for, the economy can be under human control, what the Tories have in store (see what the local councils they praise are doing) are worth resisting.

Both he and Will Hutton in a recent Observer lament the woeful ignorance of the public and the lamentable job the media do in informing us. Nick Cohen this morning writes about Stieg Larsson, a popular Swedish thriller writer, who came from a near-extinct European left-wing tradition that was both feminist and anti-racist -- reminding me once again, as Cruddas did, and as the late Harold Rosen did when John Hardcastle and I interviewed him, of the quality of political debate and organisation there used to be, in Britain as well as in Europe.

Hutton points out that media commentators as well as the rest of us seem almost universally ignorant that Alistair Darling has already announced in his April budget the measures to cut the deficit that they’re calling for him to announce.

The desire popped into my mind to have everyone who makes an ignorant political or economic remark taken into a room and made to understand (a) how ignorant he or she is and (b) the facts and arguments. Or imagine everything stopping and the whole population getting itself into small groups in houses, pubs, meeting halls, to try to get an understand. I think of those revolutions in which people talk non-stop and rush to read wall newspapers and pamphlets.

But then I realise that I'm one of the ignorant myself. I didn’t know, either, that those measures had been in the works since April. I had read neither the Budget nor the background papers.

By way of politics all I read is one newspaper and the New Statesman. I'd be much better informed if I read the online commentary and blogs attached to the newspapers -- but feel life’s too short. The paper is for mealtimes and knackered times, and if I'm at the computer I'm being productive, not receptive; and I spend enough time at the computer working for me not to welcome the idea of spending more time reading news and comment.

But -- I think is part of what’s new -- I now think I should do more to keep myself informed. 50-60 years ago and even more recently it was taken for granted by some of my teachers and then by some of my teacher colleagues that it was our duty as citizens to be informed and that ignorance was a shame to us. To refer now to that moral imperative would mainly produce a reaction of incomprehension or pity. Nor would I have been much more responsive myself over the last 30 years: I never liked doing the political stuff, Labour Party meetings were tedious, pressure groups and demos were dominated by people I disliked and despised and it wasn’t as if I had nothing to do with my time. Apart from anything else, I was an academic who pursued issues he found absorbing with some commitment and energy. If there was a moral argument about the informed citizen, I suppose I simply chose not to let it bother me.

Well, that isn’t good enough. Just as we should conserve energy and resources even though our own contribution is insignificant if we’re to feel ok with ourselves, so perhaps we have to live politically as if already in a better society. My being well-informed will make negligible difference but in the better society that’s worth hoping for people will act as if the decisions of government are in part their responsibility. Having people around who act as if the revolution (hopefully a gentle one) has already happened may help people to visualise a different possible future.

When teaching in schools, incidentally, I think I always saw my classroom as attempting a small-scale realisation of a good society. That being the priority, mixed-ability teaching was a given. The good that streamed/tracked teaching could bring about for some students (rarely, in my experience, those not in the top classes) had to be foregone as only a secondary gain.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Conrad’s Polish English

In the Newsletter of Campania ELT (Association of Teachers, Learners and Speakers of English in Campania, Italy, I read this by Roy Boardman, the editor (

“ is the end of a story by a non-native speaker.

I approached him with extended hand. His eyes, not looking at me, had a strained expression. He was like a man listening for a warning call.
‘Won’t you shake hands, Ransome?” I said gently.
He exclaimed, flushed up darkly red, gave my hand a hard wrench – and next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the companion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.”

Not reading his intro carefully I thought Roy was making a point about the fact that even the best non-native writers of English sometimes betray themselves, and I detected a foreign feel to the passage, particularly the last sentence.

But then I read Roy’s following comment: ‘Yes, you will be saying, but I recognise that as the end of The Shadow-Line by Joseph Conrad, one of the masters of the English novel’ (and, of course, a non-native speaker -- NNS). His point being that Conrad’s English was faultless.

Now I'm not sure. I recall F R Leavis saying somewhere that on practically every page of Conrad there’s some sign of his NNS language origins, so perhaps my instinct was right.

But it’s so hard to say. Even in my own writing I'm not always sure whether my constructions are ‘quite English’. The thing is, it’s a feature of written language that we can, precisely, construct it, as if it were engineering, and then can find ourselves, while breaking no rules of sound construction, generating sentences that work technically but don’t feel right.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Schools, values and inequality

Re my last post -- schools teaching values. Of course, most of the need for schools to work hard at putting something better in place of values taken for common sense in a market society would disappear if steps were taken to reduce income inequality.

See The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and the discussion with the authors on Laurie Taylor’s BBC4 Thinking Allowed blog (I've just tried to get the link to the podcast but I give up -- I hate the BBC website and can’t find it on iTunes, though it’s there). Wonderful stuff. Reduce income inequality and almost all social problems are reduced.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Schools, knowledge, values

On the radio some headteacher was going on in New Labour Speak about being there to give the kids skills and ‘appropriate’ values.

Nothing wrong with either or course, but isn’t it sad if that’s what education is reduced to? What values? and what about knowledge -- physics, maths, Chinese, Russian, essays and poems? where have the inspirational ideals of education gone?

As at, for instance, New College, Hackney, a ‘dissenting academy’ for Unitarians aged 16 and over. Dr Richard Price taught there: his sermon praising the French Revolution was the occasion for Burke’s Reflections on the same; and so did the scientist Joseph Priestley. (William Hazlitt was a student there in the early 1790s.)

As reported by A.C. Grayling, ‘In his prospectus for the college [besides listing the range of demanding subjects] Dr Price wrote that “the best education” is one which “impresses the heart with the love of virtue, and communicates the most expanded and ardent benevolence; which gives the deepest consciousness of the fallibility of the human understanding, and preserves from that vile dogmatism so prevalent in the world; which makes men diffident and modest, attentive to evidence, capable of proportioning their assent to the degree of it, quick in discerning it, and determined to follow it; which, in short, instead of producing acute casuits, conceited pedants, or furious polemics, produces fair enquirers.”’ [Grayling, A. C. (2000) The quarrel of the age: the life and times of William Hazlitt. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p.32.]

(I’ve said before that though we don’t go on about ‘virtue’ these days we can’t avoid dealing with the concept.)

The political philosopher G.A. Cohen just died. There have been items about him in the papers and there’s an extract in the current New Statesman from the book he was preparing, Why not socialism? He points out that on camping trips we behave on socialist, not market principles. I share the fish I've caught rather than selling it to you, let alone charging a higher price than Fred because of my superior fishing skill; we all muck in with the cooking and all the cooking gear we’ve brought is pooled. Out hiking, the one who knows how to read a compass doesn’t put a price on her service and if someone sprains an ankle we take turns to support him back to the road.

On camping trips and ‘in many other non-massive contexts... people co-operate within a common concern so that, so far as is possible, everybody has a roughly similar opportunity to flourish, and also to relax, on condition that they contribute, appropriately to their capacity, to the flourishing and relaxing of others. In these contexts most people, even most anti-egalitarians, accept -- indeed, take for granted - -norms of equality and reciprocity.... Most people are drawn to the socialist ideal, at least in certain restricted settings.’

You can’t infer from that sort of informal co-operative context, Cohen goes on, ‘that society-wide socialism is equally feasible and equally desirable.’ But we need seriously to ask, if it isn’t, why exactly not? and is there anything we can do about it, since we all so obviously thrive on the camping sort of social arrangement?

So what’s the connection with schools? First -- the lesser point -- how about setting 'flourishing' as what schools seek to bring about? Second, let schools challenge the unquestioned acceptance of market values as the default criterion for social decisions. If camping trips embody a set of procedural principles we might think more consciously about the value of, so do disinterested study, individual and collective inquiry and creative activity.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Skipper Medway

That's my grandfather, George Medway, on the bridge. I found the picture on a wonderful website on
Milford Haven trawlers.

He died years before I was born but I heard stories from my dad and from my relatives in Milford. (Milford is fiord-like harbour in the far south-west of Wales.) He was a child in Brixham, Devon and went to sea as a cook on a trawler at 14. As skipper years later he once stayed at the wheel for thirty hours in an Atlantic storm years; the crew believed they would have gone down without his skill and dedication. (That was the fate of many trawlers - you can count them on the website).

Also on the crew in the photograph is my Uncle Willie, second row, arms folder, second from the right.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

English and the ordinary

In his book Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies (2003) Ian Reid argued that what we do, or until recently did, in school English had its origins in Wordsworth. Wordsworth, that is, rather than Matthew Arnold, as has often been claimed.

I felt a bit uncomfortable in acknowledging that there was truth in what Reid said since I've never felt much in sympathy with the Romantics. (Just lately I've begun to find Wordsworth both more interesting and more rewarding as a poet, not least thanks to Stephen Gill’s biography.)

Reid seemed to be right: even English at the London Institute of Education in the 1960s, emphasising as it did the importance of language in mental development and saying little about schools of literary study, owed more than a little, perhaps by way of F.R. Leavis, to Wordsworth and the Romantics. Parts of that Romantic heritage now look worth reasserting.

What triggered this posting is a coincidence of reading some Wordsworth and talking to a friend who’s been teaching the Welsh Board A Level Lit that allows the teacher to choose – freely, not from a list -- a group of thematically linked books for a big coursework assignment. This year Richard has had outstanding work from an unpromising group around the theme of Madness (with a feminist or gender edge) and the books Jane Eyre, Emily Dickinson’s poems, Syvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Ken Kesey’sOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, all works he values highly. When I heard that list, I found myself feeling uneasy, despite the scheme’s evident success. Something quite deep in my formation as an English teacher was objecting. So what I'm doing here is examining my reaction.

In the second, 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads (in which his contribution outweighed that of Coleridge) Wordsworth included what he claimed were innovative lyrics and ballads such as Simon Lee, Old Man Travelling, The Last of the Flock, The Old Cumberland Beggar, Goody Blake and Harry Gill and The Idiot Boy. According to Gill (pp.140-1) these were innovative in relation both to his earlier poetry and to popular works that were full of incident, sensation and colourful character (though doesn’t add that poetry of the type Wordsworth was promoting wasn’t lacking in the magazines of the time). Whereas his own poetry had in the past followed eighteenth century models in ‘work[ing] from the general to the particular’…. [t]he ‘figures and incidents’ serving identified abstractions such as ‘Truth’, ‘Justice’ or ‘Freedom’, ‘[the] new poems… originate in a particular observation of a figure or an incident and they concentrate on it intensely, as if depicting it in all its particularity will unveil its significance’ (quotes from Gill, p.140).

Those ‘figures and incidents’ were, moreover, ordinary, as Wordsworth saw it: regular, uneducated rural people doing and experiencing things (including economic and political oppression) that were part of normal life outside the cities. Part of his purpose was pedagogic, in a moral and political sense: the audience in whom he sought to ‘raise awareness’ was ‘the legislating, voting, rate-paying, opinion-forming middle class’, and ‘…what the reader’s awakened sensibility was asked to comprehend was the pathos, tragedy, or dignity inherent in the burbling of an idiot boy, in the gratitude of an enfeebled old man, or even in the shuffling gait of an old Cumberland beggar.’ It was necessary to look to unsophisticated people in their ‘natural’ (i.e. rural) state (in ‘”low and rustic life”’) to discern ‘”the primary laws of our nature”’ (188).

He had to explain this purpose in his Preface because readers ‘who had thrilled to fast-moving incident, machinery [of plot, presumably], and colour in translations of German ballads or in Gothic fiction such as Lewis’s The Monk’ would not understand the point of poems about ordinary characters and unsensational incidents. For Wordsworth, it represented a corruption of taste that readers’ emotional responses could be aroused only by striking incident (so that even Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was open to objection). We should learn to be moved by the sort of ‘”human passions, human characters, and human incidents”’ that could be found in ordinary people and ordinary lives, and a job of poetry, beyond ‘”producing immediate pleasure”’, was to help to teach us: ‘Wordsworth could never have spoken of a purely literary act. For him poetry was a moral agent or it was nothing’ (189).

Wordsworth explains that, in Gill’s words, ‘[h]is work will be found unlike the poetry of the day…in language, in subject-matter, but above all in its tendency to disclose the quiet, the simple, the unregarded aspects of human nature. It is a poetry of discrimination, in which “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation and not the action and situation to the feeling.”’

By that he means, I imagine, that the situations engage us not because they are in themselves noteworthy but because they happen to characters with whom and to worlds in which we have, through the poetry, become involved. ‘”For the human mind is capable of excitement without the application of gross and violent stimulants.”’

NOW note the connections with the English taught in schools in the 1960s and 70s. The first was a pronounced favouring of ordinary life over exotic incident, of relations and transactions in the familiar urban neighbourhood rather than thrilling action and spectacular evil in the imagined worlds of detectives, spies, ghosts, pirates, space, boarding schools and stables.

Second, the point in addressing characters and situations from ordinary life was to observe them with some intensity so that ‘depicting [life] in all its particularity [would] unveil its significance’. Bad secondary modern textbooks of the 1950s contained scenes from ordinary (usually rural or small town life) [1], but in the children’s writing valued by the ‘New English’ of the grammar and comprehensive schools and in the favoured authors such as Lawrence the descriptions were so vivid as to appear charged with significance, suggesting a sort of transcendence in the way that descriptions of nature had in Wordsworth and still did in Laurie Lee, Ted Hughes and writing from progressive primary schools (Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, the West Riding). You didn’t have to go to the worlds of heroes to escape banality: wonder and marvellousness was there all around you if you only looked.

Third, there was a moral and political agenda, and I think a decent and admirable one. In Southwark and Bermondsey, for instance, where I started teaching in Walworth School, the working class kids in the schools, were, many of them, like their families, quite simply ‘the salt of the earth’: honest, generous, warm, responsible, intelligent. (You can get the flavour of them from Tommy Steele’s terrific autobiography, Bermondsey Boy.) But nothing that was around for them to read reflected them and their lives. What they read from popular literature and saw on television related to worlds other than theirs and people unlike them and it could often be through an English teacher that they first encountered anything representing scenes that felt closer to home (even though they might be geographically distant, as in extracts from Sons and Lovers).

In English the lives they knew, including their own, could be their own subject-matter as writers and in writing about them they could confirm and reinforce a belief that the everyday qualities of people you knew embodied values that counted.

We don’t now use the term ‘virtue’ without embarrassment except in philosophical circles, but the concept is valid and necessary. Without being preachy, good teachers still teach virtue by setting examples, acting as models and creating a moral climate in which good qualities are valued. It seems right also that English should still, as literary education always did, induce reflection on virtue and promote it by representations in books; and, since we’re not educating Roman aristocrats or Renaissance princes, that the models should include admirable people and behaviour from ordinary life.

In fact one could argue the need is now all the greater since the qualities that make figures from popular culture into young people’s models often have little to do with virtue.

Certainly, the lives of ordinary people are now more widely and adequately represented than they were sixty years ago, in television and film as well as novels, but the need for working class school students to write themselves into a conviction of their own people’s worth is as pressing as ever. (The fact that the working class is now far more ethnically diverse doesn’t remove the issue but calls for a principled emphasis on those qualities that count as virtues in enlightened -- i.e. Enlightenment-derived -- philosophical traditions.)

So I still value books that confer dignity on ordinary lives and that teach children to find significance in the ordinary as well as the extreme and exotic, and to find pleasure and stimulation in depictions of regular existence – in relationships, settings, dialogue – and not just in action and incident, in ‘fast-moving incident, machinery, and colour’. For its espousal of those aims the ‘New English' of the 1960s retains my respect.

In university English studies, meanwhile, I rather get the impression that it’s been precisely ‘action and incident’, or at any rate ‘colour’, that’s been getting the attention: plot, in which Leavis showed little interest; the melodrama of Gothic; revenants, cyborgs and dopplegängers; the marginal and abnormal: madness, deviance... The ‘quiet, the simple, the unregarded aspects of human nature’ no longer get much of a look-in.

I've indicated why I think that loss could be unfortunate: it’s important that literature take interest and recognise value in the lives of people who are not rich, privileged or powerful.

But some considerations weigh the other way.

First, granting that it’s a good thing for literature and English to remind us of what’s admirable in the ordinary that’s under our noses, the qualities of ordinary people in their ordinary lives, we no longer have the equivalent of Wordsworth’s simple, good rustic existence to point to. The virtues no doubt still exist but no discrete group is their reservoir. The working class is criss-crossed with divisions of many kinds and everybody has influences and discourses flowing through them from all over the place, not least the global media and internet. You can’t now have a working class English curriculum that draws in the same unproblematic way for its moral exemplars on a single shared community and its values.

Second, what literature does an adolescent need? It’s still true, on the one hand, that Lawrence is worth reading, at least for me (I don’t know about today’s school students). Recently, impelled by something I read about him in the paper and curious to know how he’d read now after many years, finding I still had Sons and Lovers, I turned to a random page, started reading and found an hour had passed in complete absorption. I was struck by how real, how vivid, how definite and specific the people and relationships were, and how clear Lawrence was about what being a strong woman meant in terms of her responses, initiatives, offerings and refusals. That and the electric tension in the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue and, more generally, the drama, were what made the book a terrific read.

That can’t be said, on the other hand, about much that’s been written about growing up in working class communities. The prose is often drab, the world evoked banal and petty – and unexciting for both students and me. Sometimes, reading such stuff, I feel a terror of ever being trapped inside such petty, restricted, claustrophobically local worlds and long for a dose of Shakespearean kings, Byronic adventurers, Huckleberry Finns, Augie Marches (that’s Saul Bellow’s magnificent novel), little Oskars (The Tin Drum) and Midnight’s Children. The values behind Wordsworth-Lawrence-Leavis-Sillitoe-New English are Protestant -- and inclined to be dour. The books are short on comic exuberance. The carnivalesque humour and wildness of Shakespeare and Dickens has disappeared. The fecundity and richness of life manifested in Wordsworth’s natural world (though hardly his human one) and in English nature poetry generally aren’t mirrored in those accounts of mother getting ready to go out or father on his allotment: ‘from his pocket he drew the many-coloured seed packets…’ – who cares?

As a teenager I didn’t on the whole read the books Leavis would have wanted me to. Rather what I was after was precisely other worlds, worlds different from mine, those of Steinbeck, Iris Murdoch, Sartre’s France under occupation, Hemingway’s Spain, Holden Caulfield’s family-free adventure (including prostitute). It was a bit later that I read The Bell Jar and that was equally powerful. As for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I've read that for the first time in the last week and my friend is right: it’s a great novel, in the exuberant Huckleberry Finn, Catch 22, Saul Bellow tradition – and a terrific moral exemplar. I'd give that to adolescents with no hesitation. And be confident I was doing my job as an English teacher. (American Psycho still to go.)

Yes, these books explore experiences and situations outside the run-of-the-mill ordinary and so violate the pedagogic programme of Wordsworth and of aspects of 1960s English. But so they need to, even within the terms of English as a moral education, not simply because of the appeal to students of the extreme and outré but because knowing the human condition includes seeing it in extremity.

[1] Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to Order: the history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London: Falmer.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Walking with Capital

I make myself go out walking for exercise but where I can walk round here I'm pretty bored with so the iPod helps. I mainly play not music but radio programmes and podcasts I've downloaded.

This morning I've been enjoying a rare academic pleasure, listening to a terrific university lecture, the first of David Harvey's course (not sure where he's giving it), called Reading Marx's Capital. It's the first of 13 lectures on just Volume 1 of Capital and it's a course Harvey's been giving every year but one for thirty years, and it reminds me how stimulating a good lecture can be.

It's here but I got it from iTunes.

Harvey exactly recognises my predicament as someone who read the first few chapters and got hopelessly bogged down. He explains why it's difficult: the foundation concepts that you need to understand the whole are introduced at the start but you can only understand them when you've read the lot; in some ways, he suggests, it might make more sense to start at the end.

The lecture's a good introduction and I particularly appreciated Harvey's explanation of Marx's method. First, his scientific method: talking three major existing blocks of concepts -- political economy, German philosophy and utopian socialism -- and banging them together 'to make revolutionary sparks'.

Second, his writing method: in making knowledge you start with experience and phenomena and one way and another arrive at the ideas that will allow the reality behind the surface to appear, but in 'writing it up' you present the understanding you've ended up with and in so doing are bound, misleadingly, to give the impression that those ideas were a priori, there before you started. Since the long and messy process of discovery is concealed, the reader is inclined to react, 'Where did that come from?'

So -- my gloss -- the reader almost has to reinvent the process of discovery for him/herself, to each statement saying, 'To what question was that the answer?' I think understanding that that's what you have to do is one of the main secrets of studying.

Harvey reminds me that I did enjoy reading Capital. Marx is a lively and witty writer; what stopped me was the conceptual difficulty. I needed perhaps to study it rather than just read it on trains and buses.

Not definitely promising to try again, though. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gateposts in Brittany

(More pics that I thought were lost.)

Architects use the term 'characters' for building elements that have an individual presence and are experienced as entities in themselves as well as for the part in the building as a whole. The gateposts of farms in Brittany are plausibly regarded as characters; you almost feel you should shake hands with them as you enter.

Partly it's their obvious human form: upright, freestanding, with distinguishable body and head (or at least separate top components; it doesn't do to push the analogy to the point of saying it's the ball or the entire upper thing that's the head. One could argue, equally, that the whole top is a body and a head, and the main column below just a plinth). Gateposts, I suppose, are columns, which on Greek temples had been sculptures and before that, in one theory, actual captives. (I've been meaning for years to read -- or at least look at -- Joseph Rykwert's classic, The Dancing Column.)

As they stand there confident in their unmistakeable form they seem to have a secret. They read as enigmas, as signs of something. They know something we don't. (Some gateposts in a London park in a photograph in Iain Sinclair's Lights Out for the Territory give me the same feeling.)

Irrespective on any heraldic significance the motifs may have (rope, ball), the number and configuration of the layers of the complex top clearly conform to some model of propriety. There would be a right way of doing it. Behind the shaping of the gatepost is some social order that knows what it's doing.

Clothing and hair styles in modern urban subcultures have the same effect. In the '60s Mod the width and shape of lapels, the length of hair on the neck, the size of the tie knot, the presence or absence of a shirt pocket collectively struck one as having a meaning: they were manifestations of some secret of life to which I had no access. Hence the confident self-sufficiency of his bearing.

The gateposts, by the way, are often double like this in Brittany. The gap between the pair of posts was obviously for people to walk through when the gate (now long gone -- these aren't working farms any more) was closed, but we never found out what that strange sill was for that you see in the top photo. It wouldn't keep cattle out or dogs or foxes or rats. Snakes, perhaps, adders being a problem in those parts?

Saturday, 22 August 2009

No, but they're there all right

( the question, Do you believe in ghosts?)

"Surprised at seeing a horseshoe above the door of [Niels] Bohr's country house, a visiting scientist said he didn't believe that horseshoes kept evil spirits out of the house, to which Bohr answered: 'Neither do I; I have it there because I was told that it works just as well if one doesn't believe in it.'" [Slavo Zizek, 'Berlusconi in Tehran',
London Review of Books, 31 (14) 2009]

So perhaps with transcendence in poetry? Of course there isn't another order of reality behind this one, one of which we're occasionally vouchsafed a glimpse through art or liminal experience, a surreality beyond reality. But because poetry states nothing and makes no claims (its sentences are only playing at being statements, like statements being quoted at us) it can have its cake and eat it: it avoids condemnation for superstitious belief but enjoys the benefit of experiencing superstition as reality. It's saying nothing that's untrue but it isn't in the business of saying at all; it claims no truth so can't be lying; but it nevertheless puts into our consciousness awareness of the very thing it's escaping the accusation of superstitiously believing.

So in its woods there spirits, in its deserted towns a brooding presence, over its vast waters a universal Something. And for us they're there all right, but who could ever accuse us, we who explain so dispassionately in our essays 'How Yeats creates the effect of...'?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Topographical universals

People must have written about this but I can't think of any examples, though Gaston Bachelard would be a likely person.

I'm aware that for me there are topographical universals, recurrent environmental or landscape conditions that have perennial phenomenological significance. They are recurrent themes that I feel I recognise in the specifics of particular locations and views. The most poetic incorporate hills.

One such universal would be approaching the top of a rise over which the roofs of houses can be seen. (That's the Breton flag.)

Another is entering a village:

-- in this case Plogoff, Brittany.

Another is leaving it (the same way):

The distant view is towards Audierne.

(Some pics that I thought iPhoto had irretrievably destroyed have turned up in another neck of my virtual woods - hence this posting.)