Friday, 22 January 2010

The Thames this morning

I like about where I live that it has a great train service, isn’t traffic-wrecked, has all the basic shops and is near the Thames. I’ve just walked down the Thames to Kingston, for non-daily shopping, for exercise and to practise the walking tecnhique demonstrated by Joanna Hall in a Guardian guide and on a video on their site.

It was dull and drizzling and the river was magical. Coming on the water when you emerge from asphalt, brick and concrete is restorative. The river was moving, not fast but not stagnant either; it was lazy and dirty-looking, and alive with slight changes -- surface, ripples, waves and strange movements. The river is broad here and the other bank seemed distant.

There were no birds in the air. The gulls were lined up on the boats, with the odd one on the water. A single swan glided in the distance. A single cormorant was nearer in. The main body of swans and geese were around the bridge where the RIver Hogsmill comes in, and where young children and their mothers throw bread for them.

There were three grebes, a pair and a single bird some way off. I stopped to watch the pair. The male, a few yards from his mate, picked up some floating weed in his beak and swam back. They then went into a courtship display, raising themselves up and waving their necks. The weed seemed to be for waving; after a while it was dropped and the two relapsed into just sitting, and keeping an eye on a gull that was getting a bit close.

You don’t see this by the garages outside my back window, though in the recent snow I did see a flock of redwings -- a first for me, calling for the bird book and a phone call to a knowledgeable friend.


’Pleasant’ is an entirely middle-class word. It’s one that many people I know would never use, except in an ironic or derogatory way. A person’s attitude to you may have been ‘pleasant’ -- meaning, ‘pleasant enough, I suppose, but not amounting to warm or convivial’. My daughter, asked about the weather on her weekend break in Ghent, said ‘OK, not bad, not stunning’ -- then summed it up in ‘pleasant’, spoken with a particular class-laden slight lisp -- Bakhtin’s ‘stylisation’ of a speech genre.

‘Pleasant’ is the obligatory undirected general smile worn by certain middle-class women in getting on a bus, as if warding off hostility or violence (after all, who might be on a bus?). It’s milk-and-water, non-committal, incurring no risk of being taken up.

Talk to a working-class person and their mien is never ‘pleasant’. It’s frankly warm or humorously sardonic in a friendly way, or openly convivial (’All right, mate?’) -- or frankly unwarm, hostile.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Election debates

It seems to me that television in some ways does less well for us on politics than than it used to. The parties have agreed to a televised debate between the leaders before the General Election, and the consensus is that it will an over-prepared and over-controlled affair from which we’ll learn little that’s new and which will bore us.

But I remember that there regularly (was it monthly?) used to be a programme, perhaps on Sunday evening, called (I think) Meet the Press. Harold Wilson, I recall, was grilled for a decent length of time -- it couldn’t have been an hour, could it? -- by three or four senior journalists. I think I remember Callaghan, too, and perhaps Barbara Castle, and it was really interesting.

Certainly there’s still good interviewing on tv, certainly on Channel Four News and BBC Newsight, but the dynamic with a panel of interviewers makes for quite a different sort of event.

So Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg (you’ve kept quiet about it but don’t pretend you don’t read my blog), look into Meet the Press, please, and bring it back.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Words, not things

When I was at Leeds in the 1980s working on Technical and Vocational Education, one of my bosses was Professor David Layton. He’d written a brilliant book in 1973, Science for the People, which I read, and while clearing out his office before retirement he found he had a spare copy and gave me one, signed. Work I’ve beem doing recently on English made me go back to it.

The subject is the ‘science of common things’, a form of science education developed by Richard Dawes in the 1840s and 50s for the elementary school in his rural parish in King’s Somborne, Hampshire. This was science done on the objects and processes that were familiar to the children from their agricultural environment, their fathers’ work as labourers on the farms and the mothers’ work in the home. Dawes used knowledge from physics and chemistry to supplement the children’s observation and experiment, with the aim of giving them useful knowledge that would make their lives more interesting and their future work both more effective and more meaningful to them. By developing their powers of investigation and reasoning, this education would enhance their self-respect and make them better citizens and Christians. An admirer and collaborator, Henry Moseley, HMI, observed that Dawes's was a curriculum which 'deals with reason rather than with facts, and with things rather than with words'.

Elite education has mostly been concerned with words rather than things, or with abstract form rather than with concrete substance. It struck me how true this was of my own archaic classical education. It was entirely about words and their arrangement. Words, not meanings except the dictionary meaning of items of vocabulary; words and their arrangement rather than their use to affect situations (except the awarding of marks). The making of texts, not doing stuff in the world.

That was the lessons taught by the classics department. English Literature was more meaningful because inevitably more about the meanings of, for instance, characters’ actions.

What my friends on the ‘science side’ got (we were unbelievably specialised from the age of 12) was the sort of science that by 1860 had won the brief battle with Dawes’s science of common things. Grammar school science was very much about abstract structures and very little about the physical and chemical processes one might be involved with in everyday life; in so far as any concrete ‘common things’ found their way into the lab, they were there merely as contingent instances of universal abstract forms and laws.

It has, of course, been this (gentlemanly) prizing of the verbal, the symbolic and the abstract over concrete and specific realities that has confined practical education in England to its permanent low status -- a point when David made insistently throughout his career, and latterly in his one-man campaign for serious education in technology: technology as doing stuff with stuff, that is, not as computers.

Honourable MPs

This from Trollope last night:

‘Dear George, let me have the honour and glory of marrying a man who has gained a seat in the Parliament of Great Britain! Of all positions which a man may attain that, to me, is the grandest.’

Innocent times.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Hope Against Hope

I was in good time putting my boots on this morning, ready for the station, the train and the bus to our project meeting, and was procrastinating in the bedroom. Happy to defer to the last possible minute my exit into the snow, lightly though it was falling and thinly though it was lying, I pulled from the shelf, as I often do, a book I hadn’t read for a long time, and read the first page. It was Hope Against Hope: A Memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandlelstam. The first paragraph began

‘After slapping Alexei Tolstoy in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow. From here he rang Akhmatova every day, begging her to come. She was hesitant and he was angry. When she had packed and bought her ticket, her brilliant, irritable husband Punin asked her, as she stood in thought at a window: “Are you praying that this cup should pass from you?”’

I had had no memory of one of the most memorable opening sentences in literature.

At the station there was no prospect of any trains -- the snow was presumably heavier out to the west -- so I returned home and, pleased with this unearned bonus of free time, awarded myself a pot of coffee and a further half hour of reading before ‘getting on with something’. Wondering what this book was, how it had come to be written, whether that was the real opening or what I had read was a fragment with the start missing, I turned to the introduction by one Clarence Brown, on the second page of which I found myself immediately startled by the sheer foreignness and, so often, lived idealism of the former Soviet Union. It was this sentence that pulled me up short, in a way I've come to expect when reading about that intriguing society:

[One May evening in 1965] ‘The students of the Mechanical Mathematics Department of Moscow University had organized on their own initiative the first memorial evening of Mandelstam’s poetry to be held in Russia.’

Students of maths -- let alone students of what sounded like engineering -- organising a poetry evening? In what sort of world could that happen? one with perhaps something to be said for it...?

But I recall similar instances in Alexei Yurchak’s book, Everything was forever, until it was no more: the last Soviet generation (I'm interested in this stuff). No time to dig it out now but there was a group of physicists in one of the major universities who had a string quartet -- that sort of, to us, barely imaginable phenomenon pops up repeatedly in such accounts.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Kermode on English and poetry

Frank Kermode’s Not entitled: a memoir (London, Flamingo, 1997) is enjoyable on a number of grounds: for its accounts of growing up a Manxman, of war service in the navy, of academic posts in provincial universities and Cambridge (the last truly awful), but not least for his comments on the state of English studies, whereby it seems students now do anything except actually read the stuff.

Here are a couple of quotes. These ring a bell for me not because I've taught literature at university level but that I've taught students who’ve studied it and who are preparing to be English teachers.

In the first bit, he’s despairing of teaching literature to students who have been brought up on ‘Theory’, and has begun to wonder whether the best preparation might be a course in writing poetry.

Recently, however, I have encountered, in a graduate literature class, students who have been taught to write poems as a major part of their studies. Belatedly, I am almost convinced that this is where the study of literature ought to begin.

I read a poem by George Herbert and come to one of those lines that might be used as tests of a genuine understanding of poetry: "to sever the good fellowship of dust," or "Then shall the fall further the flight in me," or, more difficult, the remarkable ninth line of the sonnet "Prayer" (you need the whole poem to see why that line is perfect). I look up and see faces, on cue, gleaming with the experience of poetry: "The land of spices; something understood." Books are written about such topics as Herbert's understanding of Calvinism and so forth; and that's fine, these are real subjects. But the owners of those faces probably understand Herbert better than the learned authors who shuffle, cough in ink, and read Calvin.

But we cannot begin again. In this respect things are as they are, and will almost certainly get worse. (197-8)

And this, about the state of things in general:

The academy has long preferred ways of studying literature which actually permit or enjoin the study of something else in its place, and the success of the new French approaches has in many quarters come close to eliminating the study of literature altogether; indeed, there are many who regard the word as denoting a false category, a term used to dignify, in one's own interest, one set of texts by arbitrarily attributing to them a value arbitrarily denied to others. This position many find grateful, either because it saves trouble or because they have ideological objections to the notion that certain sorts of application can detect value here and dispute it there; or because they are, as it were, tone-deaf, and are as happy with the new state of affairs as a professor deaf from birth might be if relieved of the nightmare necessity of "teaching" the Beethoven quartets. (219)