Sunday, 28 November 2010

More on teaching poetry

In the last post that I’ve just put up I mentioned my perplexity when it came to ‘teaching’ formally simple, minimalist (unrhetorical, non-adjectival) poems like those that came out of Europe (and Israel) after the Second World War, or for that matter ostensibly ‘simple’ lyrics like Shakespeare’s songs or Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

I believed in the value of students reflecting on poems in small group discussions and in writing, but it was hard to get these to happen at a satisfying level with all but a minority of trusty regulars. In turning the students to talking or writing, what I wanted above all to avoid was the usual routine of asking questions, turning the thing into an exercise with tried recipes or a sort of comprehension exercise. In writing I searched for a genre that would encompass the sort of mixed, miscellaneous, affect plus intellect, association plus analysis that James Britton named (unfortunately because it was misleading) the Expressive. (The name was misleading but the thing existed all right -- he exactly identified a form of language use that was characteristic, perhaps dominant, in children of primary and early secondary school age -- that is, on those occasions when they were able to write what came naturally.) This would be a first step on a long transition from naive immediate response to the more specialised, functionally differentiated literary essay -- but one which the writer would as it were wear comfortably and have recourse to as productive means of discovering his or her own thoughts because the latter arose from his or her own responses, questions and puzzlements rather than from a teacher’s preemptive inquisition. My transitional genre would have educational value rather than being primarily a means of testing the student.

I set out my thoughts on this ‘missing link’ genre and reported on my attempts to get it to happen at Crofton Secondary Modern School near Wakefield (1973-77) in Finding a Language (1980) -- try the skip outside your nearest library. But I think I only once found what I was really looking for. A student called Karen -- forgotten her surname, sorry, probably 4th year (year 10) in a mixed ability class, wrote something in response to a (translated) poem by Karl Krolow. Karen’s writing delighted me because she wasn’t one of the reliable regulars on whom I could count because they were already by background or whatever inclined in a literary and studious direction; I think I’d hardly noticed her work before she came up with this.

I’ve put both the poem and Karen’s piece below. I used them quite a bit in talks, workshops and courses and somewhere in an article.

Now my question is this: was I the only English teacher struggling to find a genre in which students responding to poems could be expansive, intelligent, generative and undirected? I don’t recall (with my highly defective memory) reading any other examples of student writing that seemed like attempts to meet the same lack. Why wasn’t it, isn’t it, a huge issue? surely teachers don’t actually like the stuff most of their kids write about poetry? or think it’s of much value? or perhaps I've just forgotten or have been oblivious a body of good work on the issue.

Anyway, here are Krolow and Karen (bless her -- I owe her a few royalties):


Out of hiding it came,
Raised dead metal to life.
The last negotiators
Peeled off their gloves
And left. Their smiles
A coinage withdrawn

Out of hiding it came.
The place it looked at
Is lost.
The doors fly open,
The windows get smashed.
Ashes and mortar
Scatter into eyes.
Lips shut
Under thumps from fists.
The squalid night holds ready
Its attacks and black minutes.
Soon the hearts
Will stop beating
Behind the curtain of rust.

Out of hiding it came.
It will manhandle us.
We may still leave the house
And gaze into the sky of bulbs.
But in the suburbs
The slogans are posted,
Soon the street fighting
Will reach us.
Soon we shall be alone
With the muzzles of guns.
Which of us shall be
The first to fall forward
Across his table?

Karl Krolow
translated by Christopher Middleton

The poem I will write about is a very good and mature one. It is mainly about beating people up and murdering and all that sort of stuff. It has three paragraphs and the beginning of each one it starts off with the words `Out of hiding it came'. I think this is to express and make you want to reach out of the air and into the poem and it makes you feel as if you were there. It is about some men who have a job of some sort to do. They collect their weapons from a place unknown to be used again later.

They go, and like experts peel off their gloves with a serious look on their face. The quiet place now becomes a death scene. A door is kicked open and windows are smashed, the people, whoever they are set a fire going. The bits of ashes fly into open eyes and loudmouths with their mouths open. The experts thump and abduct limbs from their normal position. Pain, tears and blood and sweat mix together. It must smell like a slaughter-house, a sickly smell. The smell of death. The black and evil night sits quiet and still not moving a muscle. No police sirens sound, just a deathly and unearthly evil, smelly silence.

The fire is ablaze now, orange, red and then to crimson and a murky brown colour. The fire burns. Soon all will be left is a few bits of wood and metal and rust and bodies, cold and stiff - dead.

After this outside it can still kill. What is it? No body knows for sure. They can guess and say but they don't know for sure. It could kill you and mutilate you. You can leave your home, but it is still there, waiting, waiting. In the suburbs, posters stuck on walls, fences and around lamp-posts. Maybe they say, things like `Kill the mods' or `Down with the Protestants'.

Soon all the fighting in the street all around town will reach you. You don't know when, but it will, and it will hurt. You will soon be all alone with a cold stretch of metal under your chin and in your stomach then they will blast your guts to the other side of the suburbs. You will wonder which of you will be the first to lay dead in some dark alleyway or in a corner of a room or in bed asleep. That would be best. In bed asleep. But you will die in a scene of death. Everybody dreams of death. That's all everybody thinks about. What would be worse though is to die after watching your wife and her baby being shot in the head, and their eyes popping out. A lot of people would not tell on violent people because they would be scared of getting beat up. Most violence occurs in America and Ireland. I wonder if the writer, Karl Krolow, likes violence or has had any bad experiences.

The men that he speaks of in his poem sound like real smoothies or old time gangsters. I think more people are killed by violence than by accident. I expect there is more violence in the world than there was years ago. Violence starts in a lot of people when they are young, like squashing insects and grabbing cats tails. Parents start off violence sometimes, by telling their children to be big and to fight back. In the poem they write about violence as if it was an everyday chore. Which it is really. Especially with teens and people in the United States of America. In the poem violence happens at night-time. The night-time expresses the word insanity. I wonder if Karl was speaking about a certain race of people in a certain part of the world. The form of violence used in the poem is by murder. There are many more forms of violence. Violence causes devastation all over the world. Why did Karl write this poem? Maybe it was to show everyone what violence is doing to us and to the world. Maybe he is trying to teach us a lesson. I don't see any point in violence. Why can't people just accept each other's differences and make do with it? I believe in using violence in self-defence. How much longer will violence carry on? I don't know why but barking dogs remind me of violence. If we were all blown up by a few atom bombs, it would end all violence and you would not be able to feel a thing.

I suppose you could call it `violence ending in violence'. I think this poem makes you think as if there is something out waiting to get you. I like the idea of `violence ending in violence'.


Penguin Modern European Poets

Somebody thought I might appreciate the poems by Dan Pagis in the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Indeed I did -- here are a couple of pages from the book. Note particularly ‘Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car’. (Click to enlarge.)

‘The Portrait’ continues over the page so that the whole prose translation goes:

The child is not sitting still. It’s hard for me to catch the line of his cheeks. I draw one line and his wrinkles multiply. I dip the brush and his lips become twisted, his hair goes grey, his skin, turning blue, peels from his bones. He is gone. The old man is gone, and I, what am I to do.

I realised the name Dan Pagis was familiar and remembered that in one school or other I’d used ‘The Last Ones’, in a verse translation that I imagine I got from the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, to which my wife and I used to subscribe, I think after attending one magnificent International Poetry Festival at the Royal Festival Hall.

But at first I wondered whether I’d got it from one of the volumes in the Penguin Modern European Poets series of which I collected quite a number in the 70s and which, unlike the journals or all my lovely typed and duplicated sheets of poems and extracts (has any former colleague still got a set?) I've kept. The answer was no, but on the shelf was the volume of the other Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai. I used him, too -- this one, in fact (probably at Knowles Hill School in Newton Abbot in about 1981):

Poems like this I didn’t know what to do with in the classroom, beyond a rather undirected discussion or an invitation, rarely taken up, to just write something in response. (That, I think, was the result of a university education in which there was almost no serious help with reading modern poetry. The exception was some good teaching on Eliot by John Carey.) But I did know the kids should be reading it, so often we just did that - either I read it with them and came back to poems repeatedly, or I gave them batches to read on their own, which not a few enjoyed doing. As for ‘work’ on them, that more or less stumped me - and I'm not sure what was lost by its absence.

Two thoughts:

Why no Penguin Modern European Poets now? slim, popular, cheap -- older students at Walworth used to buy them. (At least, I know one who did.) Translated poetry is still published, but nowhere near as accessibly. Not everything in our society gets worse, but this is one thing that has.

Does any English teacher in any British state school now use poetry in translation that he or she has found in a real book or journal and not a school (i.e. often exam board) anthology?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Scum of the Earth

Just read Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler, 1941 -- nice edition by Eland, 1991. Can’t quite remember why I decided to get it - I think Koestler was in the papers recently, was it a new biography, him screwing the wives of lots of famous people? Anyway, it’s the Fall of France, an episode that interests me, and he just got out of it by the skin of his teeth having been arrested, though Hungarian, before hostilities started, along with many other exiles, including from Germany -- the French ruling class, as he calls them, preparing to do what Hitler wanted before he even attacked.

So, first imprisoned and throughout in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo, Koestler joined the Foreign Legion hoping to be posted to Africa, was re-arrested and shipped to Le Vernet, a horrific French concentration camp in the Pyrenees, already full of survivors, now reduced to the state of typical camp inmates, from the International Brigade -- fighters who’d escaped from Spain. This was in undefeated France still, note.

The Germans easily knock out the French army, refugees from the north jam the roads to the south, the country is divided into occupied and Vichy, led by the ancient Pétain for whom Koestler expresses unmitigated contempt)... Koestler in the end he escapes via Marseilles and ‘two African ports’ (he’s revealing no secrets -- in 1940-41 when he was writing others might be trying to use the same route) to Lisbon (‘the last open gate of a concentration camp extending over the greater part of the Continent’s surface’ - 242) and finally England where he’s interned in Pentonville and then joins the Pioneer Corps. Meanwhile the democratic German exiles who were his friends, including his Paris neighbour Walter Benjamin, commit suicide or are handed over the the Gestapo and killed.

Most shocking is the near connivance of the French ruling classes, even before the defeat, in the takeover by Hitler.

The ruling class, Koestler said, scared by the coming to power of the Popular Front in 1936, had decided that ‘the barbarians’ (Germans) ‘had begun to develop truly civilised ideas: the abolition of trade unions, the dissolution of the Left-wing parties. Hitler’s only fault was that he was a German. Otherwise he would be a better “guarantee or security” for vested interests than an unruly French people in arms’ (239). And the bureaucracy reflected that position.

With their concentration camps -- not as murderous as the German ones but brutal and sadistic nevertheless -- they (certain politicians and the bureaucracy) were more or less anticipating the Nazi regime.

Those who prepared the way for Vichy had put these men in camps....For every ignominy they made the, prisoners suffer, they comforted them with the argument that the ignominies of the Gestapo would be worse; and when the cock had crowed thrice, they delivered them properly and solemnly into the Gestapo's hands.
In the days of the French collapse there was a last chance of saving those martyred men by shipping them to North Africa or, if that was too much to ask, by giving them a chance to escape. They refused. They left them in their barbed-wire trap, to hand them over complete, all accounts properly made out, all confidential records of their past (given trustingly to the French authorities) neatly filed. What a find for Himmler's black-clothed men ! Three hundred thousand pounds of democratic flesh, all labelled, alive, and only slightly damaged. (140)

Also very interesting on the communists with their virtues and blind adherence to the party line, right or wrong, which left them in a hopeless state when Stalin suddenly became Hitler’s ally (Koestler had been a communist but had left).

And on the chaos of the desperate escape from the north of France to the south: ‘It was a particular sadistic irony of Fate, to have turned the most petit-bourgeoise, fussy, stay-at-home people in the world into a nation of tramps’ (165) -- and then the adverts in the papers, thousands each day, from families seeking news of their children: Paris-Soir ‘Says there are thousands of “globe-trotters aged six and eight on the roads of France”’ (225); ‘André Roure, who disappeared June 17th near Azay-le-Rideau, please communicate with parents via Le Temps Clermont-Ferrand.’

Despite the rush in which he says he wrote the book, the writing is often terrific and moving. On leaving Marseilles and France finally on a ship: ‘The lighthouses emerging from the black water, with slowly turning green and red beams of light, were the last outposts of Continental France, sleeping under the stars in her enormous, dishonoured nakedness, humiliated, wretched and beloved’ (235-6).

That theme of sexual humiliation -- interesting in view of what that biography reported -- is deployed to powerful effect in his summing up of the state of a France that has put a psychological ‘Chinese Wall’ around itself, refusing to acknowledge the new reality of Europe:

Inside, on a brittle Louis XIV chair, sat an elderly, sharp-faced Marianne, her once lovely chestnut hair replaced by a toupet. Scared to death by the noise of the people Outside the Wall, she waited for the barbarian prince to save her. She knew, of course, what price she would have to pay; and while trying to convince herself that he would behave like a gentleman, she waited with a shame-faced curiosity for her dishonour. And when it had happened, and the saviour had knocked off her Phrygian helmet and her wig, she looked into the mirror with horror, and the world looked with horror at her face. (240)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bradford's Lost City

Britain’s Lost Cities is a book by Gavin Stamp, subtitled A Chronicle of Architectural Destruction. The destruction was by war and planning, the latter by local councils, but sometimes by other bodies like universities.

Bradford, my home city, features prominently, as it deserves to, and the pictures bring back memories of when I lived in the suburb of Great Horton, or perhaps Wibsey, on a hill on the western, Pennine side of the city, into the centre of which I would descend each morning on the bus, often leaving sunshine and sinking into smog that lasted all day, to get to the grammar school along the valley, running north from the centre, that carried the Beck in a sewer pipe to meet the Aire at Shipley. And at the end of the day I would emerge into late sunshine half way up the steep embankment of St Enoch’s Hill to Wibsey. (We speculated that St Enoch was probably a waistcoated and watch-chained Bradford Alderman, Enoch Priestley or Murgatroyd or some such.)

The trip involved two Corporation buses each way, both good and modern -- Bradford ran things well -- a regular motor bus down into town and a trolley bus out to Frizinghall, or possibly Manningham. (Your place names in Bradford depended on who you wanted to impress.) I got off the first bus in Tyrell Street and walked through to Forster Square (that’s Forster of the 1870 Education Act, another famous Bradford chap) for the trolley bus.

But if I had time I might walk up through the town centre for a change and get the trolley bus on Manningham Lane outside Busbys, the less posh but still respectable one of the two department stores. I’d be even more likely to take that route in reverse on the way home, when I had time to dawdle. One way would be via Ivegate, that looked like this.

Bradford had proper hills -- this was the foothills of the Pennines, all millstone grit rock that that city was built of, little brick and hence far more handsome than Leeds or Manchester, or so I thought, and I've never since been easy living anywhere without hills.

You can see the appeal of steep streets like this, obviously once a medieval country lane, now black with soot and full of interesting shops and firms and reeking of hot pies and fish and chips.

The other way I might go was up, or down, Darley Street, a handsome, evidently planned nineteenth century street from the heyday of Bradford’s civic pride when its concert hall, town hall and wool exchange were built and its fine parks laid out, still beautifully maintained in my day (as I think they still are). Behind the buildings on the left and accessed through wood-and-glass swing doors halfway up the street was Kirkgate Market, and above the entrance one of my favourite haunts, the Central Library with its huge collection, vast wooden tables and dignified reference library, a lovely place to browse or do homework and where I found much of the reading I most enjoyed (the other sources was a good school library) and dug out accounts of Ruskin’s visit to Bradford to advise on the architecture for the town hall. (The advice was rejected but the town hall was still a fine building.)

Anyway, towards the end of my childhood it all began to be destroyed by the planners and replaced by undistinguished and unlovely blocks and road schemes that are now themselves being replaced, if they haven’t already been.

So sad. Planning had been one of sources of wartime success and Labour’s hopes of building the New Jerusalem had rested on it -- and this is how it ended up, a disaster. Hence the passion and anger and despair of Stamp’s book.

Dreams of school

It’s nearly 30 years since I taught in a school but it’s amazing what a big role teaching evidently still plays in my psyche. Being in a secondary school classroom in one situation or another, nice and not nice, is perhaps the most persistent component in my dreams. Sometimes I'm brilliant, sometimes none of the levers work and things decline unstoppably into chaos. In reality being out of control was a small part of my experience -- nearly all the time I was ok -- but those occasions must have burnt themselves into the soul.

No other job that I've done gets so deep into one’s sense of self.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Waterloo train of thought: recognising a good poem

Walking through the pedestrian underpass by Waterloo Station I was thinking of the crap poem I hated and despised that used to be on the wall but is now largely painted out, thank God -- some sad, happy-hippy effort.

I was thinking that most of my English colleagues would agree it was crap. Equally we’d mostly agree on which poems were any good.

Which doesn’t mean there is such a thing as a good or bad poem poem, and that it’s a matter of recognition. The fact that we share some sense of what a good poem is doesn’t mean goodness is a feature of it per se. This sense is something we’ve got from a particular training or socialisation and is, in that trite phrase, ‘socially constructed’.

That doesn’t, however -- this was the following thought -- make our judgement purely subjective. What we share is a really shared thing, a real thing, a thing per se; it exists all right, between us, and enables certain performances. Of course it’s a mental, virtual and cognitive reality, but it’s real in its effect. It’s real specifically in enabling skilled performances.

It enables any one of us, independently of anyone else, to make a valuation, to evaluate a poem as good or not when we encounter it for the first time. But not only that: it’s also a resource of perception, having which means that we notice certain features and find things presenting themselves in particular ways, with certain features perhaps ‘salientised’, others appearing in finer detail than they would to a reader who lacked this shared resource, and so on. With it we observe distinctions and samenesses, and also recognise a certain field of external allusion, to other works and to the world. It makes what we read more significant, more interesting, more subtle or bold and more artful.

I suppose this is what Eliot’s longed-for ‘tradition’ was supposed to supply, or a shared literary culture. No doubt, it’s a real resource, a powerful cognitive amplifier, and much of what it enables us to see is real. So, it’s good to have this sort of ‘cultural capital’ in our kitbag.

The thing, though -- and this where the Eliots, the Leavises and most English teachers of the 1950s and earlier were at fault -- is to be humble with it. The thing is to recognise that other groups too can have their equivalent shared resource, and that what those resources make appear in works is as real as what ours do. The two ‘socially constructed’ ways of seeing are simply incommensurable -- it doesn’t normally seem possible (perhaps I'm wrong here?) to slide from one way of seeing to the other.

Thus: the said English teachers despised pop culture and TV as ‘meretricious’ (a word they loved but never defined and which appears simply to mean they didn’t like it). Along comes another generation, brought up with soaps, kids cartoons and comics but equally well educated and they love this despised stuff stuff and make endless discriminations (that favourite Leavisite word) between the different examples. Their resource (what shall we call it? template? model? standard? none of those seems right) makes things which we find poor, thin and trivial rich, complex and interesting to them.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

On Certain Survivors

On our research project we’re planning a book of our findings and have been trying to think of a title that reflected the notion that developments in English teaching in London after 1945 should be seen within the more general process of post-war reconstruction. I’d come up from somewhere in the back of my mind with Out of the Ruins: [plus the usual more explanatory subtitle].

It occurred to me a couple of days ago that where the phrase came from was an East German Poem by Gunther Kunert that I used to use in school a lot and that came from an anthology by Michael Hamburger. (I see I've mentioned this before -- see this this.

Now I’ve found the poem, as typed out by me long ago, and ‘out of the ruins’ doesn’t come from there at all, so the mystery remains (maybe it’s from David Lodge’s Out of the Shelter, a quite early novel that I’d read only recently about coming out of the war) but it’s such a great poem that I'm moved to share it here.

On Certain Survivors
(Uber einige Davongekommene)

When the man
Was dragged out from under
The debris
Of his shelled house,
He shook himself
and said:
Never again.
At least, not right away.

Gunther Kunert, trans. Michael Hamburger (I think)
From East German Poetry, An Anthology. Carcanet, 1972

I've found the book second-hand on Amazon (of course) - practically free as so often these days -- public libraries and university libraries discarding stock like crazy -- so it’s on its way and I'll be able to check I typed the poem correctly.

PS How many of the many brilliant poems from communist East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia get used in English lessons these days as they were by me and lots of others in the 1970s?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who should determine the curriculum?

I mentioned that I was enjoying De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime -- so elegantly scientific in the manner of Marx and Weber, and so freshly written and modern-seeming. Lately (last few years) I'm reading more history, which I’d always told myself I was interested in but had rarely chosen to read. I like the argument in it, like De Tocqueville asking why, toward the end of the Middle Ages, was the native Germanic law of the northern peoples decisively if gradually supplanted by Roman law. He argues that since the states were very different and yet all changed in this way, there must have been a common cause, and he identifies it.

Reading De T gave me to the following line of thought. He enumerates the functions of the state: administrative, financial, judicial, military etc. Nothing here that isn’t fairly obvious but I would have had to think for a while to come up with them. I.e. I’d never been taught them, though probably most American kids would be as the Americans are hot on their constitution. I think I should have been, perhaps in my school history course. De T’s understanding of the functions is essential to his explanation of the significance of the Revolution (namely, quite different from what was usually supposed), and the UK equivalent would seem equally important to British citizens today.

I'm regularly aware, though, that my history course has nevertheless paid off for me in all sorts of ways that wouldn’t have been specifiable in advance, except in very general terms. I often find myself understanding or being interested in things and realising that it’s because of my school history, of which only the last two years (10 and 11) were well taught, that they have meaning for me. My bit of history is a widow’s cruse, continually delivering significance to my experience. (The pay-offs from my endless and all-consuming classical education, in contrast, were thin indeed.)

It’s a problem, no doubt of it, deciding what should be in a curriculum. Someone has to decide what it is a person needs in order to understand the world and find it meaningful. Who’s in the best position to know that? I would say, those people -- experts, let’s call them -- who are both knowledgeable about the world and culture and reflective about the nature of that knowledge. That sounds like people who combine philosophy and some broad area of knowledge, students both of knowledge itself and of some discipline; there aren’t many such around and we need more. It doesn’t sound like teachers -- with some exceptions -- but when it comes to pedagogy (how can the curriculum actually be taught, if it can -- Michael Gove and Dryden [Gove: UK Sec of State for Education]-- they have to be the deciders. The last person it should be is a politician.

Also, it goes without saying: education isn’t just a curriculum of knowledge as organised in the disciplines. It’s also experience and activity and has an important moral aspect. A crucial contribution of good comprehensive schools, for instance, has been to take diverse groups of children and young people and teach them to sit and talk to each other in a purposeful and respectful way.

The Thames yesterday morning

A resolution I formed not long ago and am keeping to pretty well is that, despite always having loads of work to do (despite in turn being 70% retired), if it was a nice day and I felt like I’d go out and enjoy it, whether for a walk from home or to drift in London. It’s not as if we’re so over-supplied with good weather that want to willingly squander it by staying in.

It helps now that I'm taking walking a bit seriously, after taking a course (six Wednesday mornings in lovely Battersea Park) with Joanna Hall who runs Walkfit and shows you how to walk, for aerobic exercise, not hiking, wearing exercise kit and trainers, unencumbered by shopping, so as to get most benefit from it. (Thoroughly recommended -- it works and she’s good-- see her website.)

So this morning being nice despite the forecast I headed for Hampton Court (two stops on the train) for the walk along the river to Kingston (then home on the bus). Classic autumn morning, tints and that., but the walk was more interesting than usual in that there was regatta on, I think the Teddington Sculls or similar. As I left Hampton Court bridge along the path downstream, boats were assembling for the start. I counted 13 fours. Also hanging around were a couple of pairs and the odd single. I kept walking and passed quite a few more boats moving up to the start. Soon they were coming down and overtaking me from a staggered start with gaps of perhaps 50 or 70 metres. I reckon there were more than 20 fours, then the pairs, then masses of singles and as I walked on there was more and overtaking. Coaches were shouting heartily from bikes on the bank: ‘Let’s go, guys!’ The participants were schoolboys (Kingston Grammar School, I believe - they have a boathouse opposite Hampton Court and probably have rowing on the curriculum between Greek Verse Composition and Calculus -- I hope it wasn’t one of their masters shouting so vulgarly), women, though far fewer, of various ages; and older man, some grunting vociferously to indicate they weren’t effete.

When I got onto Kingston Bridge after 40 or 45 minutes, the fours and pairs had all passed and the last were disappearing downstream, but the singles (are they sculls?) were still coming and indeed were littering the river upstream as far as I could see.

That’s it. Nothing to say about it -- no significance except I'm keeping to my intention to post updates even when I've nothing to say.

But, I was at a school like Kingston Grammar and in the sixth form you could do rowing. The school had a boathouse on the Aire at Saltaire, though the stretch you could row on wasn’t all that long and ended downstream at a scary weir. Anyway, being averse to all proper sports, I did it. Not sure if I enjoyed it but I think I felt the exercise was good, and the river was nice despite smelling a bit effluvious on account of the woollen mills that were still working in those days. I realised this morning, though, that I've no recollection of rowing against other schools though I can’t believe the school would have tolerate a sport without fixtures. (Did the school have a trailer and vehicle to transport the boats?) The teacher (‘master’) in charge was Mr H. Macdonald -- don’t know what he taught and he seemed boring -- as opposed to Mr J. Macdonald who taught French, was also boring (perhaps most grammar school teachers were) and was notorious for taking a party to France and, on the ticket inspector entering the compartment on the train, indicating that they should move outside to confer in the corridor -- such, it was believed, was his incompetence in French.

This (the rowing, not Mr J.) does have significance: we must have had rowing fixtures but I can’t remember them, though they should have been out-of-the-ordinary-run-of-life enough to have been memorable. This was 51 to 52 years ago. Yet our research depends on collecting school memories from 45-65 years ago and it’s clear why so often we hit a brick wall.

Another Brussels encounter

I’ve held off telling you about my second encounter in Brussels while waiting for the person concerned’s ok.

I’d arranged to meet Martin King, who I taught for a year or two in a secondary modern in Wakefield till he left at 16 with one CSE in 1976, after doing a project for me to interview three old men on the village bench about their memories of the First World War (Passchendaele, in fact).

No contact since then until recently I noticed something on Friends Reunited, and as a result we’ve met. Martin drove in from Antwerp one morning to show me Brussels -- expertly (see below) -- and induct me in some unusual beers. (Unfortunately our meeting had to be curtailed so he could get out again: the EU summit was about to open so a ring of steel would come down on the city at 3.)

After leaving school, which he didn’t get on with (for good reasons), Martin went to tech for a couple of years to get more qualifications, joined a band and took off with them to tour Europe. The tour lasted some years, they made records and he was a star in Belgium where he met a Flemish nurse and married. Got into university, ended up lecturing in history and then left when they wouldn’t pass his PhD thesis -- too sensitive, it seems (quite a story there). Off to Hollywood to make a documentary, then Discovery Channel in Canada for another, drawing largely on his specialism: military history -- and especially the First World War. I'm eagerly awaiting his films that are to be on tv, though maybe not here. And he’ll have two books.

In schools nowadays you’re required to write lessons plans that include a statement of ‘learning outcomes’. How about, ‘In 35 years time will pick up this topic again and be inspired to make two documentary series’?'

Here are two clips to give an idea of the them:
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Greatest Tank Battles</a>
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Voices of the Bulge</a>

and a notice for the book:
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Voice of the Bulge</a>.

The trailer from ‘Greatest Tank Battles’ is currently on the ‘Discovery Channel’ in Europe and from January can be seen in the US.

Friday, 5 November 2010


No ideas in this one but have decided that to keep my few followers I need to post regularly. Being too busy (which I have been) shouldn’t be an excuse; I could always post at least a one-liner once a week. Keep me to it.

I'm at the ‘writing up’ stage of my bit of the research (English in three London schools, 1945-65 -- Walworth School is my part, with Pat Kingwell). The task is somewhat tedious: you look at 30 bits of information and can write one sentence as a result. As a result it doesn’t flow, and the text is pedestrian -- I end up saying what happened but not what it means, why significant. That, I suppose, will be the next stage. And I imagine much of what I've written will be discarded as too trivial, too nitpicking or just too much. But I don’t think I can shortcut the process.

By Eurostar to Brussels last week - my first time except to change trains. (Return journey tedious -- 3 hours delay when train broke down, towed back to Brussels, check-in and security all over again, replacement train not ready. But the compensation made it all worth it: another return ticket to Brussels.)

I enjoyed Brussels of course, but one highlights was meeting two of my ex-PGCE students, John and Amy, now married and with a son and teaching at a British international school. On the train and in cafes etc read Camus L’Etranger in French - surprised how easy since I'm not very good. Fantastic novel -- hadn’t realised how good. (Read it English years ago -- can’t remember when). Inspired by that I found a great second-hand shop and bought some more Camus and also de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution, which I also found I could manage. Great book, terrific writing. What made me get that was two things: (1) an interest in the French Revolution, arising from reading Burke and Carlyle (see label); (2) reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is about de T and his earlier book, Democracy in America, which I’d also looked at. Ancien Régime is a terrific read: intellectual force and lively, spirited writing. It has an argument that holds it together beautifully, and some polemical points for contemporary France (1850s).

There’s more but that will do for now.