Monday, 27 September 2010

Selborne in the news

Guardian obituary this morning, death of Alastair Aston who lived in Selborne. My colleagues on the research project I'm working on and many others who had taught in London schools knew him as a humane and intelligent English inspector in ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority -- now long gone).

It’s another example, incidentally, of the frustrations of oral history. We had it in mind to interview Alastair about his period in ILEA but, once again, we left it too late.

'Get on!'

Had the odd word in Waitrose, as I occasionally do, with a young chap who is often working there and who I’d originally taken for a teenage school leaver but who, when I first asked him about where they’d hidden the jars of plums after their refurbishment, was clearly older and turned out to be a recent graduate in sports science and business studies who was working part-time and in the vacations -- and now, temporarily he says, in what is, in terms of his ambitions, unemployment.

He reckons now to be filling in time and making some money while looking for a job, but I don’t know how serious that is. Last week he’d expected his Waitrose work to be finishing at the weekend but today he’s back and apparently learning the bakery/patisserie section -- couldn’t say no, he said, to the money, I suppose. Fair enough. He doesn’t seem unhappy with the situation.

Neville Newhouse, however, English master at Bradford Grammar School in the 1950s, would have said that he should be. ‘Get on! don’t waste time! got to get on!’ he used say, and what he meant was not ‘get on with your work’ or ‘get on with covering the syllabus’ but, more generally, get on with the task of youth, or of grammar school youth, which is to develop your mind, acquire knowledge, grow intellectually, read, write, think, learn.

Newhouse would have said that our lad in Waitrose, clearly bright and alert, should have developed in education a sense of the value of his own mind and be working to develop it, and not be wasting his life in a supermarket. If the school had done its job, an active mind (‘lively mind’ was one of his phrases) and an established habit of engaging with knowledge, ideas and one’s own thought would have led to a constant and insatiable desire to know more; each encounter with a book or thought would have stoked curiosity and extended the need to explore further, follow leads, see what else was there. As Jara Rakusan, a colleague in Carleton University, Ottawa, once remarked in the corridor when some of were sharing the fact that as adults we rarely found ourselves being bored: ‘No, because what goes on in us is unending semiosis’ -- one (mental) sign triggering another.

It seems a good criterion for an education that it should leave its students with minds in that state.

(And a critique of Waitrose, with, apparently, a high proportion of bright and educated young staff, might be that for all its benignity its provides an environment in which its people can live contented working lives without having an idea in their minds ever again. Or is that unfair?)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Josipovici and Lucy

I've been reading about Gabriel Josipovici’s new book, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, including an article by him in the New Statesman, and now I've got the book. I've been trying to formulate what I think about it all but am still too muddled to manage a general comment.

In general, though, for Josipovici, Modernism and its predecessors (back to Cervantes and Rabelais) was a response to the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that came with the loss of the certainties of the medieval world. Moderns works were attempts to retrieve whatever was retrievable or at least to give voice to the sense of loss. (That’s a very crude provisional formulation: the argument is far more complex and subtle than that.)

Wordsworth was one who, if I understand Josipovici aright, managed such a retrieval. Josipovici first speaks of Wordsworth’s Boy of Winander who ‘“was taken from his mates, and died/ In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.”’ He says (p.57)

To arrive at that point he must also have understood that dying in childhood, far from being a mere accident, was the boy's destiny; or, to put it more neutrally, that death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one. That this is what the poem, at its deepest, is saying is confirmed by another group of poems written in those miraculous years, the so-called 'Lucy' poems, especially the greatest and most compressed of them:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Lucy, we learn from the other poems in the cycle, died, like the Boy of Winander, while still a child. What this poem asserts and the others merely hint at is that by dying she fulfilled herself and that now in death she really is what the poet always sensed her to be, as mortal and immortal as the earth itself. Wonderfully, he conveys that this is a dynamic, not a static state: she is not beneath the earth but, like the rocks and stones and trees, 'rolled round in earth's diurnal course’... (57)

On the issue of interpretation, I'm not sure he’s right: the poet might rather be despairing that Lucy is now nothing more than the rocks and stones, in contrast with the shining star that she had been in ‘She dwelt among th’untrodden ways’ (‘Fair as a star, when only one/ Is shining in the sky’). In that preceding poem, after all, he ends ‘But she is in her Grave, and Oh!/ The difference to me.’

But if the speaker believes (rather than is trying to convince himself) that Lucy is ‘as mortal and immortal as the earth itself’ and that ‘death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one’, he doesn’t comfort me in my own secure conviction that an individual human life is a flash in the pan and isn’t part of anything larger, except as a component of ‘Gaia’ or as minutely affecting the earth’s ecology. Nor do I understand what such a belief would be like.

I'm touched, rather, by the fine vision of the unity of life and death -- all rolled round together on the planet; it affects me though I don’t buy it intellectually; so that whether or not the speaker, or Wordsworth, really believes it it is irrelevant to me as a reader of poetry.

I recognise that, in the crudity of my 21st century sensibility, I don’t feel with any great force a sense of loss and deprivation at not living in an ‘enchanted’ world of spiritual certainties, though, if Modernism springs from that sense, as experienced by artists, musicians, poets and writers who feel more deeply than me, then its works touch me nevertheless.

But when Josipovici says (p.55) that ‘art, in the hands of the greatest masters [such as Wordsworth], will always find a way out of the impasses philosophy and cultural history reveal’, I need more convincing -- at least in relation to philosophy. Whatever it is that art does, I doubt if it’s that, I'm afraid, attractive though the idea is.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Selborne, Hants

I recently read Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1788). Selborne, the Hampshire village of which he was curate, is walkable (10km) from Alton, an hour down the line from my station. It was nice the other day, I needed air and exercise so off I went.

I got the route from a Time Out website and followed it on the OS map:

Click (as always) to enlarge. Alton is just off the map, top left. I followed the green blobbed footpath to Selborne.

The countryside in the south-east can be boring -- vast fields of monoculture -- and especially when either the sun’s not out or wind and sky aren’t in some way lively. Sun there was when I left Alton station, though it didn’t last the whole walk, but also monotonous fields, if interestingly contoured, this being chalk country. And unlike Surrey, where one spends too much time in dark woods, after the first mile or two there was alternating woodland, some of it lovely oak, and small fields. And unlike in Surrey where the only livestock are girls’ horses, there were proper animals -- cows and sheep -- as well.

I took some photos, though as a photographer I've rather lost heart since Neil, my son-in-law, got a new camera that takes images that are sharper, brighter and more interesting. I suppose I could buy one but doubt if I’d want to carry it on walks: it’s bulkier and heavier, against mine which could go in my pocket if the dust and fluff didn’t get in the works.

Anyway, by the time the scenery got nice, the sun had gone in and I've concluded that, at least with my camera, taking photographs when there’s no sun is a waste of time. But here are some of the least useless -- including a couple for which the flash provided the sun.

The sort of countryside White walked and rode (and observed and hunted) in:

Inside his church (the arches are Norman, at the stage en route from rounded to pointed):

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Brian W. Aldiss

Not much more than token amends, this, for my recent neglect of the blog -- too much else going on, but mostly the research I’ve mentioned before into the teaching of English in London in the post-war period 1945-65.

This exercise has been a great excuse to read lots of history, an experience I’m enjoying immensely. The latest was Ross McKibbin’s (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51.

Dealing with the effects of war service on class relations McKibbin mentions a novel in which a middle-class boy is liberated from his class awkwardness by participating in the sheer coarseness of working-class male habits when he’s posted to India and then into Assam and war with the Japanese. So I got it and what a great Corgi cover (1972).

The name Brian Aldiss was familiar to me as a writer of SF, a prolific one, it turns out. I may have read some of his stories. I also knew the title The Hand-Reared Boy but hadn’t associated it with Aldiss. The sequel is A Soldier Erect in which the boy joins the army. I’ve gone to it without reading Hand-Reared -- but I've sent for that now (10p or something, plus stamps) and hope it arrives in the same Corgi edition.

The theme of hand-rearing and erection is, of course, as prominent as I assume it was in the first novel, and the efforts of Horatio Stubbs to get his end away in the back streets of India are often hilarious. But the last third of the book shifts tone completely and draws, I gather, on Aldiss’s own military experience, and the account of the Assam campaign is in quite another league and both intriguing and moving. (Strangely, though, the actual killing the narrator does is related in a rather impersonal and summary manner.)

I don’t think I've read anything about the 14th Army’s war in Assam and Burma though I'm fascinated by World War II in general. (I’ve religiously watched everything about the Battle of Britain in the last few days -- terrific programmes, loads of new insights and, like Aldiss on Assam, very moving.)

The book, it turns out, connects with our research not just in treating how class relations were changed by the war but because my first immediate boss in a school, Paddy Price, the head of Walworth Lower School, had fought through Burma with -- as he told it -- 500 elephants delivering supplies and fighting all the way -- Mountbatten dropping in from the air one day and, hearing complaints about the cigarette issue, ordering an air drop of top quality Players. For Paddy, too, the war had been preceded by an enjoyable spell in India. (My dad was in India too, and luckily never had to make the move into Burma.)

It’s a constant frustration, the number of people like Paddy, and my dad, now sadly dead, who I never thought to interview or even ask about things when they were alive. But perhaps that’s how it always is with history. Knowledge acquires significance when it’s no longer accessible.

McKibbin is full of useful references. When I was teaching PGCE (teacher training) my students did teaching practice at Raynes Park School (comprehensive), near Wimbledon. Now I find in McKibbin that it was a rather high-status grammar school in the 1930s and that there’s a good memoir that includes a pupil’s experience, by Paul Vaughan. That I've got too -- so cheap from Amazon that it’s hardly worth going to the library any more.

If my resolution holds up to keep the blog going, I'll report in due course.