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.