Monday, 30 March 2009

The differentness of France: Philosophie

Sad how France, which when I was young seemed a completely independent, excitingly different culture parallel with and equal to our own, now seems marginalised in the more global scene, just one subculture in a Europe that seems less significant by the day in comparison with the Anglophone world and the emerging giants in the east.

But Philosophie Magazine [click on the philosophy label in the right margin] stays as distinctive as ever, with no English equivalent that I know of. As I've said, if I were an English teacher now there’s stuff in it I'd be using.

March issue: cover theme: Pourquoi fait-on des enfants? Good question, good answers, good pics.

And how about this: in silence, write 600 words on ‘Silence’. We might once have had to in an O Level English Language exam, and we can imagine the sort of light, knowing, belles-lettristical whimsy we might have churned out. But which of us would have come up with this?

…. Silence has no need of silence to make itself heard. On the contrary. Whenever we mute a sound we testify to it. Every sentence acknowledges, in hidden words, the empire of the silence that bounds it. The word chatters, says Ionesco. The word is literature. The word is an escape. The word prevents silence from speaking. Silence is the last word of gabble, the unspoken of all speculation. Before its function in communication, speech represents a tacit pact amongst human beings who want to furnish the silence like an empty room, and then gag it. A wasted effort…. What is it that silence whispers? The solitude of humanity in the midst of things, and their contingent necessity to be just what they are. If the world wasn’t silent, we wouldn’t ask it so many questions. Confirming chance and disavowing reason, silence hallucinates exhalations of reality as the desert produces mirages of an oasis. No one would have a taste for hidden truths nor a worry about keeping ourselves amused without some direct intuition of an incurable silence. Silence is the father of God.

(These bits are from the middle. Some of my translation is just guessing.)

How French, how over-the-top ridiculous, how seductive. As with so much French writing, one wants to ask, exactly what sort of claims are these? Empirical? Universal? Necessary or a priori? How does he know? What would it be to argue against them? And I recall reading that French philosophy owes as much to rhetoric as to logic. How different…

The author is Raphäel Enthoven who we’re told has a programme on the Arte channel called Philosophie, Sundays at 1:00. If I could I'd watch it. Meanwhile, I love reading this stuff in which there’s just enough that isn’t nonsense.

Elsewhere there’s a conversation between the ‘Christian agnostic’ Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and the ‘Muslim existentialist’ Abdennour Bidar. Both rejected their upbringing and education, that of Schmitt atheistic and then (under Derrida) deconstructionist, Bidar’s ‘Muslim intellectual’ and then Sufi. Schmitt finds rationality lacking, Bidar mysticism without rationality. Weaned on the idea of the absurdity of the universe and, as a result having dried up as a writer, Schmitt turns to the mystical and aesthetic:

‘In western modernity, man isn’t God’s inheritor, he takes his place. He takes himself to be the source of meaning. In itself the world is absurd and meaningless, and it’s human consciousness that gives rise to the universe of meanings. ‘Absurdism’ comes from an immoderate pride, but in practice leads only to anguish. I increasingly detached myself from it to make contact again with mystery, the idea that there’s a meaning of which I'm not necessarily the source.’ Meanwhile, Bidar rewrites Islam to make it compatible with reason while resisting ‘absurdism’.

Plus: an ‘author dossier’ on Aristotle; an interview with Stanley Cavell, the American philosopher who writes about Shakespeare and cinema as well as the standard topics; a discussion of Marx and Engels’ claim that ‘philosophy is to the study of the real world as masturbation is to sexual love’; something on Deleuze; some Japanesse stuff; Montaigne…. I realise I'm only half way through and already April’s issue has arrived.

Friday, 27 March 2009

An image from a historian

The following passage, which I read many years ago, has stuck in my memory; or rather, that image of the estuary has. I always thought it was from Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land but couldn’t find it there, and a reference in Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands made me think I'd perhaps read it in W.G. Hoskins’s The making of the English landscape. I had, and here it is:

W 0 R D S W O R T H in his Guide through the District of the Lakes - one of the best guide-books ever written, for poets make
the best topographers - opens his description of the scenery
of the Lakes with a View of' the Country as formed by
Nature. He then passes, in his second section, to the Aspect
of the Country, as affected by its Inhabitants, and this he
begins by asking the reader to envisage what the landscape,
finished by the great impersonal forces of Nature and awaiting its first human inhabitants, looked like in its primeval

He will form to himself an image of the tides visiting and re-visiting the friths, the main sea dashing against the bolder shore,
the rivers pursuing their course to be lost in the mighty mass of
waters. He may see or hear in fancy the winds sweeping over the
lakes, or piping with a loud voice among the mountain peaks and,
lastly, may think of the primaeval woods shedding and renewing
their leaves with no human eye to notice, or human heart to regret
or welcome the change.

How often one has tried to form these images in various
parts of England, seated beside a wide, flooding estuary as
the light thickens on a winter evening, dissolving all the
irrelevant human details of the scene, leaving nothing but
the shining water, the sky, and the darkening hills, and
the immemorial sound of curlews whistling over the mud
and fading river-beaches. This, we feel, is exactly as the
first men saw it when they reached the shingled margin of
the river a hundred generations ago. Nothing has changed.
We are seeing the natural world through the eyes of men who died three or four thousand years ago, and for a moment or two we succeed in entering into the minds of the
dead. Or on some desolate English moorland it is even easier
to feel this identity with the dead of the Bronze Age who lie
near by under a piled-up cairn or under the heathery blanket of a burial-mound. It is easy, too, to feel this kinship
while watching the summer morning waves falling with a
meditative indifference on a beach still untrodden by the
human race. (17-18)

W.G. Hoskins, The making of the English landscape, London, Hodder & Stoughton, second edition 1977

Images like that seem to have been very powerful in my peculiar sensibility. This one could only relate to Britain, I think. There must be a British artist who’s done justice to such a scene, but who? It might be John Piper or Eric Ravilious or Gwen Raverat but I don’t know any work by them that meets the specifications. Or what about a photographer? Fay Godwin?

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Writing: more more

“I.e. there's a sense in which the writing does itself, or perhaps that when we write we're in a partnership with something else that's got its own ideas.” (Blog posting, 9 February 2009)

That something else is of course the language. What the language gives us is not just words (with all their associations, triggerings, resonances) but also runs, moves, lines, approaches, rhythms, progressions. It gives us packages, partly of constellations of ideas and meanings, partly lexical, prosodic etc – the sorts of vocabulary and sorts of rhythm that go with the theme.

Yes, as is mainly stressed these days, we get these resources from genres – genres give us ways of going about things. But the resources are often found in more than one genre; (b) genres aren’t as determinate as often made out and (c) despite the myth in some versions of English, we often don’t write in determinate genres, though genres always exert a pull on our writing: we manoeuvre amongst them, sometimes lining ourselves up completely with one, sometimes merely alluding to one by in passing.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Late winter in the Peaks

Today it’s spring in London, but in Derbyshire a couple of weeks ago it was still winter.

You can see on one tree, though, that winter will soon be ending. (A sycamore, I think.)

Being in the middle of Woodlands by Oliver Rackham (see my earlier posting) I paid special attention to trees. This landscape would I think count for him as savannah – grassland with scattered trees -- though not at all like our usual image. Here’s a wood, too, which Rackham would know how to date (with historical documents, geography and botany).

The tree that’s blown over would, in Rackham’s experience, probably go on growing.

Everywhere are dry stone walls, the ones, I assume, by which the Enclosure Acts were implemented. The presence of grazing animals and free-standing trees make these valley fields seem like parkland.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Remembering Harold Rosen

An event at the Institute of Education took place last night to celebrate the memory of Harold Rosen. 170 people, there were 11 speakers and many reunions. It was a moving and memorable event. As one of Harold's students who knew him a long time I was asked to say something, in six minutes! The following is what I said.

I first knew Harold in 1963, when I found myself in his PGCE tutor group here at the Institute. But by then Harold already had half a career behind him, in schools and in Borough Road Training College, and for that part I’ll have to draw on other people’s memories. Fortunately these include Harold’s own, because in 2004 and 05 he talked to John Hardcastle and me in a couple of interviews.

In 1956, after teaching in grammar schools for at least ten years, Harold went as head of English to Walworth School in Southwark, a co-called interim or experimental working-class comprehensive school set up by the LCC in 1946.

We should start by remembering Harold’s voice, so here he is talking about learning again to teach literature in Walworth:


Well, I suppose, if I take one example, Great Expectations, I discovered that, used with discretion, Dickens is their author, you know, in spite of those long you know posh bits. And I remember we'd got to start off this opening, so with this opening, you know, the encounter with Magwitch, the convict, which is a fantastic piece, I've always thought it was quite incredible. And we read the big chunk of where he gets him to promise he'll bring a file and something
to eat. And so we read it, I read it once, and then I had them read it as a drama, skipping the intervening bits, just, it's full of dialogue. And then we explored the idea of being frightened, and being frightened of certain kinds of adults. Well I can remember being fantastically chuffed because I had chosen something [] because they couldn't stop talking about frightening adults, quite different kinds of course, and I was surprised at how often they were people encountered in the markets, and who grabbed hold of them, and so on, tried to get money from them. And then, of course, they could, if they wanted to, write about that, and they did, and there were a lot of good pieces, shall we say about a third of them.

So much there and no time to expand – but note that “surprised”. In Harold’s account of Walworth it’s striking how often he was being surprised by the kids – what they thought, what they chose, what they could do. That frequent sense of surprise came from the alert expectation with which that post-war generation of teachers, with Harold as pioneer, approached their teaching as they moved from grammar schools to comprehensives out of a determination to make them work and with a thirst to find out how. Between them, over the space of about seven years, working in an inquiring, improvisatory, feeling-their way spirit they created a new English, one that -- at last -- would be good enough for the working class children about whom Harold said, ‘They are the hope’.

So what was Harold like in the classroom? Accounts do exist. There’s a lovely recognisable description by his Walworth pupil Valerie Avery, in her novel London Spring which, with London Morning, he inspired her to write. And Bob Thornbury, his student at Borough Road training college, has told us of a demonstration lesson with cat poems –

‘– have any of you got a cat? Have you? Oh you’ve got a cat? What’s your cat like?’ And the kids started to talk to him… and they started to kind of move forward and by the end of the lesson… there were eleven kids out the front in one way or another, sat at Harold’s feet, and the others all rushed at the end of the lesson to tell him more about their cats. It was just spell binding.

Betty Rosen has written (in Changing English) about a lesson of Harold’s she saw while on teaching practice at Walworth. Unlike many heads of department, Harold chose to teach the lowest streams. The door was flung open and this smiling, eager figure came in, looking as if he couldn’t wait to be with his wild 4th years again. In no time he had them telling stories about their neighbours, and then writing about them. What stayed with Betty was the visible conviction Harold conveyed of the worth of what those students had to say. Harold, of course, thought the world of kids and was constantly being amused, amazed and delighted by them, and it no doubt helped that, as he told us, ‘I was a naughty boy at school…. So I couldn’t be sanctimoniously disciplinarian with kids.’

Well, he couldn’t be sanctimoniously anything.

I've known other teachers with generous personalities who were magic with kids. The difference with Harold is that he knew what he was doing on an intellectual level too – which was partly what made him such a superb teacher educator. His thinking was as exciting as his practice. His ideas and his knowledge, manifested in a thousand remarks and comments in our tutorials, seemed to come from some deep well of wisdom that I
always wanted to get at. But of course, articulate though he was, he never laid it all out. What Harold knew he knew in his bones. It wasn’t a system but a rich culture of connections, best expressed, as Tony Burgess indicates (in Changing English), in the detail of his memorable formulations, which of course came also from his other great ability, as a superb talker and artful, vigorous writer.

For me, coming from my lower middle class grammar school background in Bradford, Harold was a quite new and unfamiliar sort of person, deep, fascinating, clever, warm and funny, nothing short of an inspiration. He was more interesting and more intellectually exacting than anyone in four years at Oxford, and the first really intelligent person of the Left that I'd encountered. For me and many others he made all the difference.

But I think my final word, when I think of this warm, clever, amusing, sometimes difficult, often pontificating, always story-telling man, would be quite simply: What fun he was!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009


(Thanks to:

There’s a pair of Great Crested Grebes on the Thames near here, among the ducks, geese, swans and coots. For me as a kid they were mythical birds in my bird book … (parenthesis about my bird book: Ward Lock? From Daly’s Bookshop on Sunbridge Road, Bradford, bought with my dad one Saturday morning in a trip into town on the bus, down the long hill from Wibsey… Later, the Observer Book of Birds, of which the other day I found a badly damaged copy left by a tramp in a lockup cupboard beneath our flats) – and (Resumption of Foregoing, as Flann O’Brien says in At Swim Two Birds) to see them I'd have to go to some equally mythical stretch of water called a mere or tarn – wild, bleak, mysterious, bull-rushed or reeded, the water black, the skies louring… Where the grebes are in that photo is far too sunny.

Later, I thought of a mere as the water in Tennyson to which the dying King Arthur was taken by Sir Bedvere, who

bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the Ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full..

Indeed, Arthur orders

“take Excalibur,
And fling him far into the middle mere:
Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word."

Bedivere instead hides the sword and twice lyingly reports

"I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag."

That’s exactly a mere. I tell you where there's a mere like that: under a crag below Hadrian's Wall.

The third time Bedivere does as told and throws Excalibur:

But ere he dipped the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere.

Thus the meaning of the grebe for me is suffused with Celtic twilight. Finding it on the placid bourgeois southern prosaic Three Men in a Boat Thames is an instance of how in modern times the world has got disenchanted.

Long gap...

Shamefully long blog silence because … well, stuff. Two concerts, an opera and an exhibition last week – all great (not my usual rate of cultural consumption) and been writing a talk – one of eleven contributions to a celebration event for Harold Rosen tomorrow. Writing twenty minutes worth wasn’t too hard; getting it down to the prescribed six minutes has been a bastard. I may post it after tomorrow, if it isn’t pointed out to me that I should be ashamed of it…