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.