Monday, 26 December 2011

A lost follower of this blog

Sadly, I’m one faithful reader less since last week. Andrew Stibbs, my oldest friend, died on 22nd December. He not only read my blog, he responded, often putting me right. Scientist, English teacher, English PGCE tutor, poet, NATE activist, serious artist, lifelong correspondent. I hope I'm wrong in thinking they don’t make them like him any more.


Never too soon, I suppose, to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Not that I ever make any since they seem doomed to be abandoned.

How about this, I'm nevertheless wondering: I've never read the complete works of any major poet, so perhaps I should.

Ted Hughes not only read the complete poems of Yeats-- as a schoolboy -- but, he reckons (Letters), he knew them by heart.

One reason the resolution would be hard to carry through is that I can’t speed-read poetry. It has to be taken at reading-aloud speed.

Enacting the resolution would mean, for once, finishing what I've started, something I can do if for instance writing an article but not if exploring some area of knowledge for myself over a long period. But I'm not sure enacting it would even be wise; I tend to think that when I leave a thing half done to take up something else the impulse is often a sound one, and the sense that the other thing is exactly what I need right now is based on some real self-knowledge; my swerves off-piste and sudden redirections of attention are often fruitful.

But at a cost. I often regret that the rewarding book that I stopped reading part-way through in favour of some new pursuit, and that I know would have benefited me, has since been buried lower and lower in the pile, further and further from being picked up again. Some day I will go back, I resolve. And sometimes I do, perhaps years later.

Reading Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (finally -- published in 1952!), makes me now, off-piste, want to read late 18th century verse -- an unusual impulse in our day.

So first when Phoebus met the Cyprian queen,
And favour’d Rhodes beheld their passion crown’d,
Unusual flowers enrich’d the painted green,
And swift spontaneous roses blush’d around.

Websites and blurbs describe Davie as an ultra-conservative critic but his comments on extracts like this are brilliant and make me see them afresh. If this is ultra-conservatisim, let’s have more of it. (I won’t copy it out: it’s at Penguin, 1992, p.31; I think perhaps online as well.) If one wants examples of good ‘close reading’, go to Empson, Leavis and Davie.

That bit is from a poem by Shenstone, who I've never heard of. Nor have I heard of several of the other poets Davie quotes. I imagine Shenstone wrote whole volumes of verse, or one fat volume at least, and that Davie read the lot and that most was boring. With what attentiveness he must have been reading, though, for a passage like this to stand out as, in his words, subtle, remarkable and beautiful! My other problem with reading poetry is that after a few pages I can’t maintain that sort of freshness of response.

Perhaps a small dose every day would be sustainable and I’d get through, say Yeats or Milton, in a few months. It’s not going to happen, though.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Sessions 3, 4, 5 -- AYLI, the rest

Yes, I have to admit in the end, it’s actually very good. Not so much for reading -- needs to be performed for all that clever choreography of gender swops, synchronised marriage and sudden conversions to have its full clever or touching impact. But much of it is truly delightful and, while never quite attaining to funniness, is slightly smile-inducing.

Big problems still remain both for the unsympathetic teenage reader and for me. What are we to make of Touchstone’s ‘wit’ and what is to be done with it? A typical example:

Touchstone:         Art thou wise?
William:                Ay, sir, I have a pretty wit.
Touchstone:         Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying: ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ The heathen philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape, would open his lips when he put it into his mouth, meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and lips to open....Art thou learned?
William:                No, sir.
Touchstone:         Then learn this of me. To have is to have. For it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ‘ipse’ is he. Now, you are not ‘ipse’, for I am he. (V.i)

Presumably enough of the audience must have found this amusing. More infantile they -- which is the impression I also get from medieval writing, as quoted from letters, home-made prayers etc that I find in books of medieval history. They wrote like 8-year-olds of our own time, and seem to have as sophisticated a sense of humour. Thank God for progress.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Session 2, Act II

Now that I have set aside the perspective of a drugged-up, angry teenager attending class in between rioting, I get along fine with this play. Everything in this act is delightful, I find; nothing to complain of except some unintelligible stuff from Jacques (textual corruption, suggests the notes at one point). Even ‘All the world’s a stage’ now seems appropriate and amusing. The earlier passage about the weeping deer was touching, as is Orlando’s care for Adam and the generosity of the good -- the forest -- Duke. And it’s full of music -- which productions usually mess up with some horrible, specially composed tune.

I can almost see why that Walworth class in 1951 might have enjoyed preparing scenes for the Shakespeare festival.

‘Lack-lustre eye’ rang a bell: Hazlitt uses it, more than once, I think, to describe some misery-guts like Bentham.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Second time round: is As You Like It as I like it now?

As I said a few days ago, I reread it with the prospect of attending a semi-staged performance, found little merit in it and didn’t go. Ever since, and talking to people who love the play, I've wondered whether I was right in my reaction. So rather than put the book away on its shelf I've kept it out, and today felt I wanted to try again, picked it up and so started a re-read -- and decided to keep a log of my findings, act by act.

So, first stint, Saturday teatime.

I've just read Act I and thought it terrific. There’s lovely language, some characters are feisty -- all powerfully display their natures -- and I’d little trouble with understanding. Orlando forcefully expresses -- in gutsy prose -- his dissatisfaction with the way his elder brother treats him, and shows himself a spirited youth. I find myself respecting his interlocutor, his father’s old servant, Adam, a feeling confirmed when we see how the brother treats him, too, after showing himself vindictive and insulting to Orlando and provoking the latter to show his mettle. This deliciously wicked brother, Oliver, with no redeeming features except reluctantly recognising his brother’s qualities while persisting in his enmity -- implausible, yet I have no trouble accepting that the plot is schematic and conventional -- persuades the soon-to-perform champion wrestler to finish Orlando off when challenged by him, which in the event he fails to, even more implausibly and yet, to me, acceptably, thus establishing Orlando as indeed the courageous gentleman whose denial by his brother appears all the more dastardly.

My one point of confusion arises from the arrival on the stage of another delicious dastard, indistinguishable in his meanness and spite, the Duke, Frederic, who has usurped and banished his brother, the father of the witty Rosalind who, accompanied by her friend Celia, the Duke’s daughter, falls in love with Orlando (and he with her, natch) -- and is now banished, like her father, by the Duke. The loyal and loving Celia, another faultlessly virtuous character, decides to accompany her. Sounds nothing but corny, in fact delightful.

The clown Touchstone has been around, in the company of the girls, and even his clowning was more or less comprehensible and didn’t annoy me.

And, throughout, the verse, as spoken by the noble characters, as opposed to the proley prose of others and of themselves off duty, as it were, is lovely.

So, first take: why do I react so differently this time?

For a start I'm taking my time, while previously I was racing to get through it before the performance. Perhaps also, in the expectation of that performance, I couldn’t help envisaging how embarrassing and excruciating a bad reading by amateur luvvies might be (not that I’d any good reason to suppose it would be bad, except that the readers would be amateurs).

I think the other reason is that I find myself thinking quite a lot about the teaching of Shakespeare in schools, something I never attempted except for GCE exams, as few of us did in those days. And I was thinking all the time in part of my mind how a stroppy class of, say, year 9 kids would take it -- think of that group Simon Callow made such a hash of teaching in that Jamie Oliver experiment. And I can’t see what it would take, even if the language ceased to be an obstacle, to get them to accept the absurd conventions of the genre -- like accepting that characters sing in operas.

I recall though that at Walworth School in the early 1950s a third year class (year 9 in today’s terminology) did a production of scenes from As You Like It at a drama festival with their English teacher Arthur Harvey. We have a photograph of it and recollections by someone in the class and I have the impression that they loved it. Different kids from Jamie’s, of course, but still poor and working-class.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Fear of singing

Is anything as terrifying as that singing by choirs of Bulgarian women in -- is it unison or close harmony? an image of an unthinking, totally conforming traditional culture, in which individuality can find no expression. It’s beautiful and heart-rending but also repulsive for what it suggests about what we might be reduced to.

Like those scenes from old British documentaries in which a thousand men pour out of a factory, all with flat caps, all heading the same way, all having to be back on the dot of 8 on Monday morning. Or where a shed full of women in oilskin aprons gut endless baskets of fish, with movements so rapid you can’t follow them, all subordinated to a mechanical rhythm.

Medieval plainchant, too. My terror of institutionalisation, total socialisation with nothing left over. Even stretches to community singing. Singing at football and rugby -- though the Welsh national anthem never fails to raise hairs on my neck. Mass rallies, all shouting, open mouths, faces uplifted...

Thank God for orchestras and conductors since Beethoven, lonely poets in garrets, plays with recognisable people, not Vice, Avarice, Charity...

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Hopeless Shakespeare

I've sounded off before about this and now, a current experience to report.

I was contemplating going this afternoon to a reading of As You LIke It, by amateurs with a professional director, wine and mince pies included in the very modest £3. I remember enjoying the play at the Globe not many years ago. So in preparation I've reread it over the last couple of days. And now I'm not going.

There were bits I enjoyed. Always good to get into reading Shakespeare again, and I recall what insatiable and incessant readers of him some people I admire have been, like Ted Hughes (see the terrific volume of his letters). But the pleasure soon palled as I was confronted with a text that seemed in the greater part to be either unintelligible or, because of the tastes it appealed to in humour and conventions, was simply, to modern reader who was not a specialist, pointless. I was left fuming at the stupidity of making young teenagers study it in school: what young person today, with all his or her exposure to the wit and sophistication we’ve enjoyed in English drama since the Restoration, most recently with classic American films and the best TV comedy, would find anything appealing in this?

It’s not that the plot is silly. That doesn’t matter either with Lear dividing his kingdom or Duke Frederick’s vendetta against his brother and niece and sundry others: the banishing scene and the others in court are effective. As Germaine Greer said in her book on Shakespeare, there’s nothing so magnificent as a Shakespearian king or duke.

Rosalind is captivating, it’s true, even when playing silly games. ‘All the world’s a stage’ is a nice piece, but gains nothing by being in that place in that drama.

And there’s the fact that I really did enjoy it when I saw it, or remember myself as having done, when I saw it. There the main actors were terrific -- I don’t recall the clowns and fools and simple folk, who are usually a disaster on stage. What stays in the memory is the atmosphere of Arden, with lute music and gentle singing, absolutely seductive. I suppose some nice bits of scenery or props, even at the Globe. So I guess the text can be made something of -- but that’s what it’s a case of.

I suppose I should read it again to be fair. I don’t remember taking against it when I first read it long ago so it may just be that I'm getting sour with age.

But I don’t think a semi-staged performance by amateurs will help me to feel more kindly. So, no, I'll give it a miss.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

'Wasted generation'

Too busy for blogging of late with the research and my art classes but I should keep in mind more consistently that the blog is a nice vehicle for occasional thoughts that aren’t connected to anything particular.

Like the one I had just now at the bus stop in Kingston, outside the Job Centre. I saw people going in who I imagined never had a hope of ever being employed. Meanwhile students were passing along the street, anything from 16-year-olds from the FE College to Kingston University students who might have been up to 26 or so. Nearly all were black or Asian (which in Britain typically means south Asian -- India Pakistan Bangladesh Sri Lanka -- rather than south-east or east Asian, often called ‘oriental’).

The schools and institutions like those I've mentioned are full of young people who are the first in the families ever to receive an extended education. Like the young Irishmen with little education who worked as labourers on English building sites when I was a student and some of whom I got to know, they represent a vast pool of intelligence, if I might use that dubious term from labour market accounting. A lot of very clever kids, and their equivalent in Britain now are getting something of an education, though by all accounts it may not always amount to much in the schools.

This is the lot who politicians are often calling a probably (almost inevitably, in fact, given the economics ) ‘wasted generation’. It’s not primarily because they can’t any more get to university that they’re wasted, though that is certainly harder now for many. It’s because they aren’t the jobs.

However, it seems to me that there may never again be the jobs. Already many of those in employment are doing work that’s well below their qualifications. How many jobs will there ever be that involve an educated specialist mind? what proportion of the population can ever be employed in work that does justice to the intellectual development they’re capable of, given good schools?

And there I'm stuck. What are the options? everyone do a PhD to keep them out of the labour market for a few more years? But few people want to stay in education indefinitely, even with generous grants; we see it as a phase in our lives, having its satisfying place because there’s the prospect of the real world after. There has to be, for most of us, an expectation that sooner or later we’ll be putting our minds to work at something that makes a difference ‘out there’.

Suppose there were a universal basic but very adequate wage, unrelated to employment. Could the whole unemployed population, or that part that has the capacity, spend their lives not in education but in the arts -- multiplying by a factor of n the amount of creative writing in the country, the number of bands, the frequency of theatre groups? an opera house in every small town? would that be good or intolerable? after all, much of it would be awful.

If the ‘out there’ were generously defined, ‘putting our minds to work at something that makes a difference “out there”’ might include doing research, even in things like history, since in the end it all has an affect on what people think and do.

We could double the number of teachers if they worked half time and were at university or in the arts the other half.

Etc etc.

But the cost can only be met by exporting, and perhaps having a financial sector (the City) that coins it by disreputable means and that can be taxed -- currently, I read, to the tune of £50+bn. The work in those sectors, however, plus services, will never be enough for everyone -- but might perhaps be profitable enough to fund the universal wage. Eh?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

A dramatic rail journey

One of the most dramatic railway routes in England must be that from Waterloo East to London Bridge. It takes five minutes at most but goes through the most exhilarating cityscape, from iconic buildings of Southwark and the City to offices you can practically read the papers in to Dickensian rooftops and garrets close enough shake hands through the bedroom windows. For a slideshow on Picasa click here.

Learning to draw and seeing Surbiton

To the shops on a nice autumn morning and decided to extend my outing as far as my wrecked hip would allow. So I went down to Maple Road and past its lovely plane trees, fine houses and a leafy Victorian Square till I heard organ music from St Andrew’s Church. St Andrews I've always thought as a forbidding dirty brick pile with Victorian ornament that’s trapped generations of soot. I’d never been in -- in fact had never noticed it was open.

I went inside: just a verger or functionary was there, busy, and the organist practising his Bach, nicely. I was very surprised by the building: I was in a huge light space with beautiful new oak pews, fine glass and spectacular brickwork -- the same as outside but clean. There had been a big restoration job, well done. The uncluttered floor invited movement and the seats sitting -- which I did for a listen and a look. A brochure explained it was 1870s and named the architect and stained glass artists, all unfamiliar to me but then they would be as I know little about Victorian churches. I looked around, at the story of Noah on the ceiling of a circular apse, at the brass plaques of commemorated and thanked Victorians and at the stained glass, for which you have to learn to ignore the thick black grid of window bars -- not difficult.

My main pleasures were in the vast, intricately textured volume of the building and the pictures, on the ceiling and in the stained glass. I'm strongly aware how experience of a few drawing classes, in which I'm the least competent student, has made me appreciate both the appearance of, particularly, people (I enjoyed sketching in the Royal Festival Hall concourse the other night) and the drawings of professionals. Going out through the porch I inspected a group of small stained glass windows at eye height. I could see they were essentially coloured drawings and admired the lines and the arrangements of shapes and spaces. No camera with me, sorry.

So everyone at school ought to be taught to draw properly. Perhaps they now are.

Walworth/Mina Road info wanted on teachers

This process is endless. At the moment Pat Kingwell and I are looking for members of the class that started as 1CL (Mr Clements) in 1962 and ended as 5H (Miss Harvey).

We’d also like to learn more about Mr Graham Reid who taught English between, we think, 1962 and 1964 and then went off to work in Yugoslavia. Chap with a black beard and Scottish accent. What can you remember about his teaching -- and where is he now? He’d be an invaluable informant.

And, as ever, we’re looking for pupils' work done between 1946 and 1965. Do you know anyone who’s kept English exercise books or folders?

Contact us, please, if you have anything or know anyone who might have something, at

Sunday, 16 October 2011

MRBCS -- more

A question and a comment:

What are those pictures (prints?) on the wall of the ‘top class’?

And the comment: when I worked in the successor school in the 1960s -- Walworth County Secondary School, comprehensive -- you could see the boys as the central school scholars’ direct descendants: still smart, well dressed, happy and alert, except for that poor or neglected minority that would never have got into the central school and for the most part were in the ‘remedial’ classes, though these classes, too, had thoroughly wholesome-looking children. The introduction of mixed-ability classes in the second half of the ‘60s was a welcome and successful reform.

Mina Road Boys Central School

These photographs were kindly sent to us by Darien Goodwin. The portrait is of his father, Eric, who was at Mina Road Boys Central School between 1917 and 1921. The class photographs are of the first form (Eric top row, far right) and the top class (bottom row, far left). According to the system in central schools, the first form boys were aged 12 and the top class 15 (called fifth year in my time and year 11 these days).

Schools like this were selective elementary schools and some, including Mina Road (it seems), were very successful. Although they had a vocational emphasis, academic subjects were taken seriously, including, according to Eric’s reports, the ‘English subjects’, Mathematics (Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra), History, Geography, Science and French.

We know a bit about the school around this time from Herbert John Bennett’s I Was a Walworth Boy (London: Peckham Publishing Project, 1980). At least in his slightly earlier day (1913-16) the headmaster was Edward P. Paul who in the first assembly explained the school motto, Agi quod Agis, ‘What you do, do well’. ‘I do not think he was liked by the masters. There was certainly little affection from us boys’ (32).

A Mr Dawes is remembered with respect and affection: ‘[Dawes] had seemingly realised that the best prospects for us boys from working class families lay in our entry into the Civil Service, and he specialised in putting his boys through the Boy Clerks examination.’ The attraction was the promise of a pension to escape ‘the insecure world of poverty that surrounded me’. Dawes’s friendliness is remembered; he used to play football with the boys (33-34).

Perhaps someone can even today tell us who were the teachers in the photographs.

‘Mina Road School was not a large school. There were only six classes but in addition to the six classrooms [there were science, art and woodwork facilities]. Next door [he seems to be referring to the layout of the playgrounds] was a girls’ school and contact between the two was forbidden.’ There was a school production, though whether it was Shakespeare is not clear (32).

The building is the one that’s still there on the site of what is now Walworth Academy. I wonder when the tiered seating was taken out?

Mr Bennett had ‘no regrets… [It was] a good school with some wonderful teachers’ (9-10).

One can indeed imagine the well-turned out boys in the photos, in their jackets, waistcoats and ties, being receptive to a good education, especially when the size of the class reduced from about 41 at the start to 15 in the final year. They look quite ready for good clerical jobs. (If you were going into a trade, would there have been any point in staying for a fourth year?)

I suppose one can’t judge by such photographs but it doesn’t strike me as an unhappy school.

The National Archives at Kew, by the way, have inspection reports on this and the girls' school from the 1930s.  Both are highly praised.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Andrew Salkey at Walworth/Mina Road

We’ve been given a lovely letter of sympathy and good wishes that was written by a pupil to Andrew Salkey, her English teacher, who was then in hospital with bronchial pneumonia. It’s dated 24th October 1957 and was evidently never delivered. We would love to contact the writer, Barbara Allen: does anyone have her address or email, please?  (Send it, please, to

We’d like also to learn more about Mr Salkey as a teacher. He was later a notable novelist and poet who dealt with themes relating to the Caribbean where he had grown up.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Country hikes from Walworth/Mina Road, 1950s

We’ve just had this from Pip Piper -- Mr L.B. Piper, a New Zealander, who was a supply teacher at Walworth in 1957-58, partly substituting for Andrew Salkey (English) who was in hospital with bronchial pneumonia.

Harold Rosen, he tells, used to organised Sunday hikes in the country for Walworth pupils. Adults went too. Shown here (click to enlarge) are, left to right, Harold Rosen, Alex McLeod (also NZ), Gillian Murray (wife of Mike Murray, biology, another New Zealander), Mrs Rosen (Connie) and Pat Darby (PE; married Pip Piper).

Anyone who went on these jaunts (via the ‘Ramblers Special’ train), do get in touch: Or add a comment here if you can work the system.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

O'Reilly plaque at Mina Road/Walworth

I mentioned before about a ceremony on 31 August to unveil a plaque to commemorate the first head of Walworth (comprehensive) School. It took place at Walworth Academy, who have now published their own photos of the event.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Romantics again

I posted earlier on ‘English teaching, Romantics and Moderns’ in the light of Ian Reid’s book on the influence of the Romantics on English teaching. Ian immediately responded, but (like most people) was unable to post his comment -- procedure too cumbrous. Our exchange is now quite old since I've been away for a while but with his permission I reproduce it here, lightly edited.

Ian, 4 September:
Anyway, my lost-in-space comment was mainly to say (1) that I don't disagree with your remarks except that I don't see them as "problems" for my line of argument, just strands in the fabric I've tried to exhibit; and (2) that modernism's lack of significant impact on English teaching shouldn't really be surprising, because it has relatively little resonance (compared to Romanticism) with the self-shaping "sentimental education" that for most teachers and students has continued (albeit with variations) to be the major focus of "English".

Me, 4 September
Good of you to respond, Ian -- thanks.  (1) fair enough.  (2) -- this is not a comment on the book or your response -- it seems to me to take some explaining why people with a literary education and a keen interest in literature, who 'kept up' assiduously with developments in writing -- Britton, Rosen, Dixon -- and who would have been well aware of modernism and would have read the key texts -- were so unaffected by that whole revolution that their belief in the 'sentimental education' you rightly refer to should have continued in such an untroubled way?

When I think of it though I don't remember Harold [Rosen]-- my PGCE tutor who I knew well -- even referring to, let alone getting excited by, any modernist text.  The stuff he liked was Dickens and stirring tales of revolutionary struggle -- Arturo Barea on Spain, Sean O'Casey's autobiographies (lots of autobiographies, in fact -- including Gorki).

In his case, it may have been the right-wing politics of Eliot and Pound and Proust's difficulty (for a start) that put him off  -- but why not Joyce and Kafka?  Though I recall he did read a quite 'difficult' (in a modernist way) poem by Charles Causley with us, and was an admirer of Miroslav Holub -- who I suppose you'd say was in the modernist tradition.  And Britton was keen on Wallace Stevens and Malcolm Lowry.

Perhaps they found certain modernist works ok but didn't buy the whole rejection of, for instance, realist narrative -- nor see any implications in it for English teaching -- so had no hesitation in promoting it in kids' writing in school.  Nothing could be more anti-modernist, come to think of it, that Britton's position (quoting Lady Chatterley) that novels were essentially the same thing as gossip....

Rosen certainly bought into Wordsworth's view of the child and was fascinated by and accorded great value to children's experience -- but I'm sure would have been appalled by Wordsworth's manifesto on education in Book IX of The Excursion, as I was when I read it a few days ago, possibly for the first time -- can't trust my memory now.  How did intelligent people in the 20th century not find that stuff simply silly and offensive?  (I didn't feel that way at all about the Prelude, needless to say, when I re-read it recently.)  You're very clear, though, that Dixon, at least in his Bretton Hall period, was a serious Wordsworthian.  Must ask him about it when I see him next.

Is it just my problem that I'm a bit perplexed by those people's position on modernism? As you can tell, I'm just floundering in all this.  Perhaps they were simply right to stick with the essentially Romantic approach to childhood and education -- and after all there was no modernist position on education in the way that the Romantics -- the movement that it arose in opposition to -- had a view on it -- as they had a view on the state.

Ian on 5th September ends with a very strong point:
Yes, but I suppose another way of understanding the conundrum about modernism is to recognise that (despite some well-known oppositional gestures and dismissive rhetoric) it often tended to intensify certain elements in Romanticism. Think e.g. of Virginia Woolf’s emphasis (and Joyce’s) on epiphanic moments, or Kafka’s on the existential anguish of guilt-ridden individuals, etc.

Much of modernism could thus be seen in Harold Bloom’s terms as a combat with its inescapably influential Romantic parent.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Concern at CERN

Seems some particles may have been breaking Einstein’s golden rule and exceeding the speed of light. I read, though, that an Italian physicists reckons may not have been going faster than light after all, on their test track from Switzerland to Italy, but ‘taking a short cut’ through another dimension.

As always when confronted with explanations like this I ask, What is the hope of a humanities product like me, who has trouble with maths, ever being able to understand?

I suspect -- incidentally -- that one problem is that term ‘dimension’. To me it means length, breath or height, x, y or z on a 3D graph. If those are dimensions it’s impossible to imagine a fourth that belongs in the same set. Time doesn’t seem to me to be anything like the same sort of thing, and as for the idea of others that don’t even have names that we understand (like ‘time’) in a rough-and-ready, everyday way, I can’t even get to first base. So should they use a different name, or is there perhaps a definition of ‘dimension’ that I might be able to grasp? (And would it help?)

Saturday, 24 September 2011

'Building a library'

Depending on the music under consideration, I enjoying tuning in on Saturday mornings to Building a Library on BBC Radio 3. Strange concept: I've never in my life met anyone who sets out to ‘build’ a library of classical music, on the basis, it appears, of wanting the best recording of every piece of music that exists. On that basis the programme, which deals with three or four pieces in three hours and a quarter, has a while to run before it has covered the lot. Doesn’t nearly everyone buy opportunistically -- ‘I like that -- I think I'll buy it’?

Whoever the intended audience of the programme is -- all ten of them -- they must be incredibly expert. The fascination is the discriminations that the presenter is able to offer between performances I can’t hear the differences between. Today he commented on one performer who, though good, was ‘unfortunately below the note’, which I presume meant ‘flat’ -- could have fooled me and I'm amazed that someone can be a professional who gets on recordings and plays flat.

The problem for me in listening is not that I'm not building a library but that I don’t know how to listen. The chap will make some point about the passage he’s about to play: by the time it’s a few bars in I’ve forgotten what I'm supposed to be listening for, or else I don’t know which bit is supposed to contain the feature he’s drawn attention to.

It’s still a good programme for the likes of me -- or at least the odd twenty-minute sample is. It’s like reading a book and finding a couple of lines of poetry quoted, indented, italicised and set off from the text. That often strikes with particular force. So it is with hearing a burst of music embedded in the prose of professional commentary. I’d love to see a breakdown of the actual audience -- it must be very different from that select community of library builders. So, keep Building a Library and pay no heed to charges of elitism -- though I suppose I'm elite so I would say that.

RE my musical education: some time ago [] I mentioned I was looking for an art class to join because I wanted to draw. The first class of the course I've ended up in, life drawing, run by Kingston Council Adult Ed, was a model of the sort of thing I need in music. We drew a skeleton, several times, quite fast and once from memory. In between the teacher ‘took us through’ the skeleton, showing us how it could be regarded as made up of three basic forms and suggested the features we regard as primary and those we’d be best ignoring till well on with drawing. She broke it into parts and identified them: the job was done by a mixture of pointing, gesturing and handling with naming or ‘attaching’ a verbal comment, so as to make them retainable in memory and thought.

I need the equivalent of that for music. Perhaps it exists online -- the internet would be the right medium: it could show the score and the player and the viewer could run it back to replay sections.

Friday, 23 September 2011

When does boring not apply?

A train of thought. I’d been at a conference and had been thinking and talking education for a couple of days and it occurred to me that X at one of the schools I’d worked in had probably been a boring English teacher. Then I thought, that department was keen on getting the kids to do most of the talking and of staying much quieter than teachers normally do; in which case ‘boring’ or ‘interesting’ didn’t apply to the teacher; they were relevant only to teachers' ‘lectures’ or extended utterances, of which we intended few to occur.

At that point I became unsure. Surely X and any of his colleagues would respond to what the kids said, and the kids would expect them to? in which case might not be their responses be felt to be interesting or boring? However, I wasn’t sure that a response would indeed always or usually be expected or felt to be appropriate. I thought I remembered seeing lessons I considered successful in which the kids went at it hammer and tongs -- including gentler passages (rubber hammer, sugar tongs) -- and the teacher, quite rightly as it seemed, simply saw to traffic control.

Such lessons could undoubtedly be good and important ones, nor was the teacher any the less entitled to credit, for all that he or she wasn’t interesting, for creating the climate in which something became an argument or discussion and the participants took turns and behaved in a civilised way.

Nevertheless teachers know and understand stuff and have responses and relevance frames that kids don’t. If there isn’t a way in which these attributes are made available to the students -- in a manner that would be judged as interesting -- then only half the job’s getting done.

It’s not easy to judge from my own experience. I favoured listening to the students a lot, but couldn’t resist ‘being interesting’ and sharing my take on the issue. And of all my own teachers who I remember as being good all were either interesting talkers or showed me to do something I valued; none ran the sort of post-1960 classroom in which it was almost all down to the kids -- which I'm glad of since most of my class really were boring (for some reason, all the interesting people I knew were in other classes. Perhaps that was to do with my being in the dusty classics while they were on the livelier modern languages or history sides -- or science, though the teaching there could not be called lively.)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Loss of control of unsystematic mismanagement

Then I decided it was time to tackle my computer problem. The fan had been running continuously most of yesterday and was still running, for no obvious reason. I looked it up on the Mac support site. As always, the answer was there-- a sequence of switching off, unplugging, waiting, replugging, waiting, restarting. It worked.

I went to make a note of this for when it recurs. But what was the name of the procedure? it was in the heading of the document but I couldn’t remember it. Was it resetting the

System Management Control, or the
Management System Control, or the
Control System Management, or the
System Control Management...?

And would it matter which?

This is what happens when Apple’s technicians don’t read Shakespeare or were taught about post-colonial gender power relations instead of poetry in their English lessons. They’d be capable of writing ‘a palpable hit’ inadvertently, without realising how brilliant it was.


In a dream someone in some situation I've forgotten said, boringly, ‘A palpable hit!’

Whether still in the dream or just out of it, I thought ‘palpable’ doesn’t sound right for a hit -- the word should be sharp, hard, dental (like ‘hit’). Pulp -- something flabby about it. But this was a sword fight. Surprising Shakespeare didn’t feel that.

Palpable means touchable and it seems the wrong word -- wrong sound for that, too. But there it is, the Latins thought it was ok -- palpare. (Which even has a remote connection with palpitate -- which does at least have hit in it.)

Then, definitely by now out of the dream, I thought, ‘You fool, Medway! he did! Shakespeare did feel it! This was Shakespeare, after all -- our lad!’

Quite why he liked it, can’t say. The sharpness of the hit, contrast with the pappy palpable softness of the flesh?

The thing is, he picked up on the qualities of words. It struck him, as it belatedly struck me, what an interesting pairing of words, if nothing more.

This is the stuff they should be picking up on in teaching poetry in school. Not gender, post-colonialism, power, the Other, gothic-horror-vampires... or only secondarily. Poetry’s not about that stuff. Or not primarily.

In that case, what’s its point, poetry? doesn’t sound serious.

That’s right, it isn’t, because the serious stuff -- real life -- isn’t enough. The day after the revolution we’ll be bored out of our minds. What we want is more -- another realm beyond this one. There isn’t any such thing really -- no afterlife, for instance, no ‘other world’. But there are the human-made, art-made worlds like poetry. Sooner symbolic satisfactions(symbol-derived, semiotic, virtual) that never come with the same intensity.

After those thoughts, the following popped into my head: south day empties...

...and I approved it. Doesn’t mean anything or do anything but you can’t deny it’s good. Say slowly, dwell on each word in turn.

Time to get up. I reset my mobile from Silent and selected ‘General’. ‘Activate’, it replied, and I thought, ‘Oh my darling, oh my darling, activating for a mine.’

Am I getting poetic in my old age? is this a compensation for the loss of marbles? Perhaps its the other side of my late-onset dyslexia that has loosened the semantic anchoring and strengthened the sonic anchoring of my words -- but that’s another posting, maybe.

Sweet are the uses of senility.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Or here!

See previous post: same idea, but this time the names belonged to class 3K in 1955-56:
Blackwell Jean
Cooper Pat
Dunn Florence
Durrant Jean
Embleton Vivien
Fleetwood Pat
Gager Vera
Hardey Betty
Hart Pat
Hedger Gwen
Hewett Yvonne
Monkton Doreen
Pawson June
Pearce Rita
Plumb Pat
Punt Jeanette
Sparkes Shirley
Townsend Lilian
Trivass Pamela
Waddell Patricia
Wiggett Susan
Ayerst John
Beaney William
Dinan John
Donnarumma Anthony
King Thomas
Russell Kenneth
Yarranton Robert

We’d like to hear from anyone on that list or anyone who was in that class. If you know anyone’s address or email and you think they wouldn’t mind your passing it on, can you please let us know?

We’re especially interested in the English teacher who took you in from January 1956, Mr Harold Rosen -- please let us know if you remember him, and most especially let us know if you’ve kept any work that you did for him.

We’d also like to know who taught you in years 1 and 2, and 4 and 5 (for those who stayed on).

The best way to get in touch is via an email to

Our website is

Walworth/Mina Road: see if your name's here!

As regular readers will know, a couple of us are collecting people’s memories of English teaching at Mina Road (Walworth) School as part of a research project. Pete was a teacher at the school from 1964-71; Patrick was a pupil who left in 1969.

We’ve been lucky to get hold of some documents that contain lists of pupils who were released for things like choir practice, music lessons and athletics events. Amongst the names are some that belonged to class 2D in 1956-57 and 3R in 1957-58:
Abbott Sandra
Crump Linda
Curtis Jacqueline
Curtis Gillian
Dower Carol
Fitzgerald Eileen
Hill Brenda
Hollis Garrod
Hollis Michael
Keefe Leonard
Leonard Keith
Lewis Kenneth
Longhurst Diane
Munday Barry
Richards Derek
Vallance David
Wakeman Alice
Walker Ian

We’d like to hear from anyone on that list or anyone who was in that class. If you know anyone’s address or email and you think they wouldn’t mind your passing it on, can you please let us know?

We’re especially interested in the English teacher who took you in those two years, Mr Harold Rosen -- please let us know if you remember him, and most especially let us know if you’ve kept any work that you did for him.

We’d also like to know who taught you in years 1 and 2, and 4 and 5 (for those who stayed on).

The best way to get in touch is via an email to

Our website is

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Hypothesis re babies and language

Am now regularly exposed to two children aged around one. This has just occurred to me -- I must check it out in the field (i.e. on the floor) when next I visit. It may be wrong; it may also be correct and completely familiar to those who know about this stuff.

Language, as I understand it, is known to have a different origin from animal cries. The only animal cries we human have are crying, roars of rage and such and laughing -- something like that -- I forget the formulation. These we hear from babies from the start. Only around now, though, am I beginning to notice vocal behaviour that seems the precursor of language; the nature of the distinction is my hypothesis.

Animal cries in babies are expressive, the manifestation of internal states like amusement or hunger. The sort of noises that seem to anticipate language are referential: they occur in the context of the attention being directed to something outside the self, or accompanying some operation like dropping a block into a slot. I'm not sure if these noises are getting specialised yet -- a particular vocalisation for a particular phenomenon -- in which case they would be on their way to being names.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The discouragement of good habits

I take a quiet pride in being economical - not throwing the marmalade jar away until I've scraped the very last milligram of the Sevilly jelly, eating every last leftover scrap in the fridge, turning appliances off. The incentive to save is only partly financial -- one day soon we may all have to go back to scrimping and saving, so in preparation best get back into wartime ways now. There’s are moral and ecological dimensions too, in principle -- though in practice eating all my greens up won’t save the earth.

Nevertheless, it’s disheartening and a disincentive after saving 5p here, 1p there, to break the glass plate in the microwave and then to be charged £27.68 by the bastards at Panasonic for a replacement. Nor much choice but to accept, I conclude: I no doubt need the exact same plate with the grooves in the right place and I doubt if the 99p shop has an own-brand substitute; nor is it likely to be repairable.

Would I have been better off in the USSR with a socialist microwave that didn’t work but with spares that were free to Party members?

At least I wouldn’t feel like a mug for trying not to waste stuff.

Academics in wartime

An item on today’s Today -- BBC Radio 4 -- described a wartime RAF establishment the name of which I didn’t catch. It recruited archaeologists and other academics, as well as gifted amateurs like crossword geniuses, to interpret aerial photographs taken over enemy territory -- thus detecting from an image a millimetre across the presence of a V2 rocket and estimating from its dimensions its possible range, or inferring from the type of goods trucks in a marshalling yard whether foodstuffs or industrial materials were being transported and working out what the answer might indicate about the state of things in the nearby city.

One of the participants, whose name I also missed, was asked if he and his colleagues resented the lack of any public recognition of the work after the war, in contrast with Bletchley. He answered that they didn’t expect recognition: doing the job was the reward in itself because the work was both worthwhile and interesting and the relationships formed during it were enjoyable.

A constant criticism of public policy under every government since Thatcher has been the failure to acknowledge that the worth and interest of the work can be their own reward, and that the motivation to work hard and to the highest standards can be present when there’s no monetary incentive. This particularly applies to work that people chose because it’s interesting and despite the indifferent pay, such as teaching and research. In teaching it can often be a bad idea to reward good work with marks and grades when you want students to come to believe that the exercise of intelligence and extension of knowledge is a good thing in itself. The same applies to teachers, doctors and NHS managers. Might it not even apply to bankers?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Chemistry dream

In my dream last night I was attending, as myself at my present age, an undergraduate chemistry lecture in Canada. The lecturer, who was well-prepared and interesting, talked about some chemical compound that had a twenty-five year delay before it was activated. Then it could be set off by, for instance, the rumble of traffic.  What happened on activation I’ve forgotten or never knew.

I asked a question, something like: ‘It’s quite a long time since I had my last chemistry lesson so could you explain a bit more fully?’ I’d thought of adding that in fact I’d never in my life had a single chemistry lesson, which is true, but didn’t want to outstay my welcome. As it was, my question evoked some laughter.

I don’t know how the lecturer responded except that she was nice about it, but in the audience was a colleague from my own department. I'll call her Eileen because I haven’t known anyone called Eileen since 1984 (Eileen Daffern, admirable communist co-director of the Centre for Resources in European Studies (or similar) -- six empty rooms, some notepaper and a lot of books -- at Sussex University). I was a frequent guest at pseudo-Eileen’s dinner parties, and came to realise I was something of a trophy, possibly because of my British accent and because I came with jokes, in which Canada was not self-sufficient. Her face wreathed in smiles at my question, she turned round to beam at me and then at all her friends in the hall as if to say, ‘Isn’t he wonderful? Isn’t this a great find I've bagged?’

Where did the dream come from? I don’t know but I was impressed by what my Canadian humanities students knew about science from their broad high school curriculum and the range of subjects they took in first year university.

My other observation about chemistry is that the chemists I've known -- not a large sample -- have been more interesting, more cultured and more human than the physicists.

Friday, 2 September 2011

English teaching, Romantics and Moderns

I've been carefully re-reading, for our history of English project, Ian Reid’s Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies. It’s of particular interest because there’s an extended discussion of English at Walworth/Mina Road School in the 1950s and 60s, including accounts of some key teachers: Arthur Harvey, Harold Rosen and John Dixon.

His claim is that all these teachers, and teacher-educators at the Institute of Education and King’s, right back to John Dover Wilson and including Percival Gurrey and James Britton, were heavily influenced by Romantic values and ideas that sprang originally from Wordsworth’s poetry. The problems with his story are, first, that these people, for all that they had in common, had many important differences and were influenced, differently, by ideas that came from places quite other than Romanticism, and second that -- as Reid fully acknowledges -- Romantic ideas had been so thoroughly absorbed that they were no longer felt to be ideas or a theory but were simply the common-sense air that everyone breathed. How could a thinking English teacher not have been a Romantic if that was what you were if you didn’t espouse some moribund and atheoretical hangover from Augustan convention and classical rhetoric?

A question that continues to intrigue me -- it falls outside Reid’s remit -- was not how teachers were (still) influenced by Wordsworth but what they made of the liveliest literary movement of their own century, Modernism. If university-educated English teachers were a key group within that part of the society that seriously read literature, how can their work have been, to all appearances, so utterly unaffected by Ulysses, Kafka and Pound? Eliot got in there through certain exam syllabuses, maybe some Yeats too, but, as far as I can see, few others. Gabriel Josipovici (click on his name in the labels at the side) complains that British novelists still continue to write in nineteenth century genres. Well, it seems accordingly that kids in English lessons wrote nineteenth century narratives and Romantic poetry, as if the vast upheaval of Modernism had never taken place.

It’s possible to think of explanations. For instance, it’s not easy to see what teachers could have done with Modernism if they’d wanted seriously to build it in, in setting writing tasks, for instance; it may be that Modernist texts are simply too difficult for younger readers; or the Modernists’ sense of the exhaustion and irrelevance of nineteenth century forms wasn’t and couldn’t be shared by readers who hadn’t read enough of it to have grown weary.

Blue plaque for Miss O'Reilly

Miss Anne O'Reilly was the first real head of Walworth/Mina Road interim comprehensive school, 1947-1955. Her niece, Pat Jones, and my colleague on the Walworth history project, Pat Kingwell, persuaded Southwark Council to award her a blue plaque for her war work (for which she was given and MBE) and her headship of two schools, Peckham Emergency Central School during the war and the new Walworth School after it.

The four-year-old Walworth Academy (principal Devon Hanson) hosted the ceremony, the plaque was unveiled by the mayor on the wall of the only surviving building (from 1905), Simon Hughes MP spoke and we all went inside for refreshments, mingling, and more short speeches, including by two impressive ex-pupils from Peckham, then David Harris from Walworth, Pat Jones herself and Pat Kingwell and me for our project, Social Change and English: A Study of Three English Departments 1945-1965, appealing for more information and stuff. Lots of reunions and, for Pat K and me, a chance at last to meet people with whom we’d had only email or postal contact.

Some decent photos will be up on the Academy site in due course; in the meantime here’s my petty offering.  (Click to enlarge)

1. On Mina Road facing the school and the plaque.  I'm sure there were more people than that when we eventually got inside.

2.  Here I can recognise on the right John Sparrow (English) talking to Simon Clements (late 50s and early 60s, English and Social Studies).  Of those present, John must have been the teacher who taught earliest at the school (1952).  I also see Mary Lou Thornbury who taught World Studies in the 1960s and 70s.

3.  I'm sure there will be a better photo of the plaque forthcoming. You can at least see Miss O'Reilly's dates, 1891-1963.

4.  Finally, the one surviving original building (1905: the Mina Road Higher Grade School) which only now can we get a decent view of, after the demolition and new site layout.  Here the only people I'm sure of are, on the right, Kim James, who I taught in the first and second year and hadn't seen since, and Bill Metson on the left, who we met and interviewed through the project.

I'm looking forward to some decent pictures taken by Tony of the Academy.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

How literature should be studied

What I do with books might suggest what English teachers might try to do with their literature classes.

The issue of principle or theory at stake is whether ‘just reading’ is enough and if not, what’s needed beyond what we see people doing with books on the bus or tube.

There are certain obvious things to be said.

(1) Life’s too short and not all books deserve more than a quick reading.

(2) In my experience, the main thing that needs to be done with a huge proportion of kids in secondary schools is simply getting them to read more fluently and get through more books. They don’t read well enough and they don’t choose to read. Leaving school unable to read well is far more serious than missing out on literary appreciation or analysis.

For myself, I've evolved a procedure to meet my own needs as a reader, though I'm very irregular in practising it, most of my procedures aren’t maintained for long and none are completely satisfactory. In addition, what I do these days is probably influenced by needs arising from failing memory -- I simply don’t remember what I've read as I used to.

Here’s the sort of thing I've been doing recently while reading Kafka’s Castle (re-reading, I think, but I'm not sure). Every so often I break off and write notes on ‘what strikes me’ -- that’s as good a formulation as any, and a measure of vagueness is desirable in specifying procedures, especially when a teacher is proposing them to kids, so as not to foreclose interesting variations one may not have thought of.

Note that I'm not studying the novel, as for an exam or to write an article, though I think my notes would be useful, though insufficient, for either purpose. I'm reading for pleasure and find that making notes enables me to get more out of the book.

Here’s the sort of thing I write:

  • Amalia dominating the household of Olga and Barnabas—what’s that about? goes nowhere...
  • Constant physical difficulty in moving: encumbered, deep snow etc—as in bad dreams.
  • The ‘gentlemen’ and Castle officials: temperamental, secretive, dissembling—hiding, pretending to be someone else.
  • What did K. come for? Who is he? Does he have a past? Above all, why does he stay and not simply go back?
  • interminable delays—waiting for a result for years, until old age.
  • The officials are human, have appetites, break rules—and behave like children or animals—‘the continued shouting in the dark stalls’.
  • The Castle isn’t a castle in fact but just an untidy settlement of ‘hovels’.
  • Ambiguity about whether a bureau is actually in the Castle, or a servant is really a Castle servant. Semi-official messengers etc, gradations and subtleties, uncertainties of status. ‘X is not a real messenger,’ etc.
  • People age quickly—a lifetime’s ageing in a couple of years.
  • The servants dictating into the air and the clerks without being asked or even glanced at taking it all down.
  • Extreme disparity between absurd claims for the ‘authorities’’ efficiency, infallibility and sensitivity—as believed for instance by the landlord and landlady—and the accounts of their extreme childishness and selfishness.
  • The stuff of bad dreams or nightmares: being trapped in vulnerable situations; losing time -- morning becomes late afternoon unnoticed; going to sleep in evening and finding it's afternoon on waking up surrounded by people.
  • Claustrophobia: getting into small spaces: the clerks behind the counter at the castle. Sleeping under the bar, constantly being crowded by people.
  • The officials spend a lot of time asleep. So does K. but is still constantly tired.
So what is the sort of thing I note and what use does it seem to be? Not so much impressions as things that are there, in the novel, features or aspects that give it the character it has. I note things, in the sense of notice. Things on the whole other than plot, character and structure; more themes, images, pervasive representations.

Because I lack a musical education I feel deprived of any means of getting a grip on classical music when I listen to it. I couldn’t write notes like those above because I don’t have the language. More seriously -- or, rather, an aspect of the same thing -- I don’t have the concepts; I lack the names and therefore the things -- I don’t know what it is I'm hearing. I can’t identity bits, parts, elements, aspects; I can’t make the necessary distinctions and fix them in memory so as to recognise repetitions and variations; because I don’t identify the elements my ability to memory is impeded. Without a functioning memory I can’t get a grasp of structure.

In noting the features of the novel I render myself able at the end to say what was in the novel, in a way I find harder when I haven’t made notes, and that’s without re-reading the notes. It’s not the writing down that makes the difference; it’s the registering you have to do in order to have the content that can be written down.

So in English, reading literature: I would argue they don’t need theory, not in the first place -- just a way of grasping what’s there, noting and registering it. They should come away with a sense of what the book was, what was going on it it. Explaining what was going on with the help of categories like gender, post-colonialism or psychoanalysis seems to me secondary, something to be brought in later, after they’ve given the text a good going-over with whatever resources they have to hand. Your help in enhancing those resources, allowing different features to become apparent in the text, will be best appreciated when they’ve got as far as they can under their own steam.

What I'm arguing for at a more general level is that English teachers take seriously something that John Dixon was onto in the mid-1970s, in his final, added chapter in the third (1975) edition of Growth through English: that simply, as it were, picking things out and naming them, putting them into language in the first place, was the primary act of abstraction on which all the higher operations like generalising and explaining were dependent, and should be the first concern of English (which meant in the early years, up to about year 9 I imagine, a focus on ‘enacting and narrating’ -- 117). There’s something out there: the basic intellectual move is, in the face of that something, to set up something ‘in here’, in the mind, in language, a symbolic something you can work with (for instance, through reasoning) as opposed to the actuality that you can’t work with, or not in the same ways.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A mundane day

[Written last night -- touched up this morning]

So why don't I try just writing this blog as a diary, simply recording what I've been doing, at least once in a while? Here’s today's bulletin, then, in all its quotidian tedium (though, to be truthful, I've enjoyed my day).

It's ten to nine on Sunday evening and I'm watching a programme on culture, Leavis, Snow, Raymond Williams.  Pretty shallow like so much TV, in sad contrast with radio.  But it was broadcast yesterday and I have a telly setup I really like that lets me record things, without all the hassle of a VCR. So I'm never stuck for something to watch when I feel like flopping.

I came through to watch telly because I’d decided I'd had enough work for the day.  The work was writing an article, based on a talk I gave at a conference in Germany, in the light of comments from the journal editor to whom I'd sent my notes. I'd been messing about with it in a writing program for the Mac called Scrivener but decided yesterday I'd be better reverting to pencil and paper and writing a fresh outline off the top of my head.  That went well and what I wrote seemed usable and worth typing out, so I turned to the dictation package I'd recently bought, Dragon Dictate for Mac.  I've used it a few times and while it’s impressive there seem to be more errors than there should be.  I put this down to the difficulty it's having understanding my speech because my nose is currently blocked by catarrh.  I say currently, but currently seems to have lasted all year; I always tend to get stuffed up but this year has been worse than any I've know -- is it something in the air, different pollen perhaps? (I don’t get hay fever.)

I persisted and in the end looked online for a Dragon forum that might give advice. I've been working through some good stuff that I've found.

That was most of the day.  Never went out although it was fine -- not good, but I don't usually fall into that pattern.  I've been less active recently because of a bad hip. On Friday, though, I was advised by the consultant to try painkillers and so far they seem rather effective -- I can walk more normally again and perhaps will even escape the need for a replacement, which I was expecting to be put down for at my consultation.

What else? some ongoing reading: Fredric Jameson's The Modernist Papers -- not an easy read and sometimes beyond me because I don't get the references to all that high theory but frequently exciting and illuminating -- the first very theoretical book on literature that I've read for a long time that makes me see more in the works; despite the grand ideas he’ll typically take a paragraph or two and subject them to an insightful reading, à la I.A. Richards, though picking on different sorts of points. Brilliant man.

Alongside, I'm re-reading The Castle by Kafka.  As I'm going back to Germany next month I thought a couple of weeks ago that I’d try to learn a bit of German by following the text in both languages.  Years ago I'd read two novels by Marquez like this and it worked: I retained a useful amount of Spanish.  Not so with German, however -- too much grammar, too many words that look similar, too many confusing prefixes.  Or perhaps it's that Kafka's sentences are too complex.  So I soon gave up on the German text and carried on with the English, finding it more and more absorbing.  Decided to scribble notes because I get so much more out of a book when I do. Often it’s some time after reading a section that I have thoughts about it, in bed perhaps or taking a nap on the sofa; if I then write them down, in the first place they begin to add up to something and also they make it more likely that I'll keep having ideas and retain them. To make the activity more substantial, I'll then dictate the notes, certainly if I can get Dragon to work more reliably.

The Kafka, of course, relates to Jameson's book on modernism, which in turn I got because I've long been confused about what modernism was and why it happened and why it seems now to be consigned to the past.  And it’s relevant to why teachers taught English the way they did in the period we’re investigating in our research project, 1945-65. The parts of Jameson I've read so far, though, have been about Mann, Proust and Ulysses -- terrific on the latter -- one of the great works that I not only respect but enjoy.

The telly programme has moved on via Richard Hoggart, Kenneth Clark and John Berger to Edward Said. It's actually very good as it turns out, allowing for what it tries to pack into an hour.  There was actually some film of Leavis lecturing -- never seen that before.

When I get to bed it will be with The Hugo Young Papers, confidential notes by a Guardian journalist of interviews with politicians from Harold Wilson to Tony Blair.  Sounds dry but actually fascinating -- not least for Young’s ability to recall it all (he took no notes and had no recorder). Also his confidential assessment of the interviewees’ characters. Chris Patten comes out well, and John Major; Portillo and most of the Labour lot badly (at least so far: Blair hasn’t won the election yet).

Not much email today -- August and a Sunday.  Talked by phone to my daughter and got an update on their building work (house improvements) and the kids' activities:  Lucy (4) went to a drama workshop and loved it so I hope she can get lots more of that: it's a terrific thing for kids to do on all sorts of grounds, and I wish I'd done more of it when I was an English teacher in the remote past.

Monday morning
I should have mentioned: re having ideas while relaxing and somnolent. I had three good ones in the afternoon while napping on the sofa and afterwards scribbled them down: I'll certainly dictate them today. One was about our next research proposal, one was relevant to our present research and was about the similarities between kids’ learning from teachers and teachers' learning from each other; the third, relevant to the article I'm working on, was a point about speech and writing. If I was in a full-time academic job, in an office in the university with the phone ringing and students pestering and emails harrassing and constant bloody meetings, how would I ever have the space to have an idea?

And earlier in the day, now I remember it, I’d had another thought I hadn’t had before -- and immediately emailed someone about it: it was about how the working-class side of my dad’s family (his parents, two of his siblings and their families) regarded the middle-class side (us and my other uncle’s family). I realised I’d never asked about that, or really been curious about it. Too late now, I fear.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

English teachers: listen to this

Here’s a poetry workshop that I wish I’d heard when I was a teacher. Six days left to catch it.

Ruth Padel runs this session, the first of four, and she’s great (though I don’t understand her poetry). It takes place in Exeter, which is ok, but the other workshops will be in different places and I hope they’re in to cities, the north and other less well-heeled places. She starts with a terrific poem by Alice Oswald, perhaps my favourite English poet at the moment -- you can see it at that link, along with the poems by the workshop members.

I don’t think I ever taught poetry well until years after I was running PGCE sessions, and they were, to say the least, patchy. Not that I could have run a workshop like Padel’s with many of the kids I taught, but as preparation for teaching a poem a workshop like this would have been fantastic. And it represents a type of English teaching that I think has largely been lost.

Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation

Delayed but here at last: photos from by visit to Marseilles in June.  (Click on it: the ones below are just a sample.)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Walworth / Mina Road Central School

All schools used to keep a log book that recorded staff appointments, staff absences, school events, inspections and the like.

Before the war there were two schools in Mina Road, sharing the two buildings: Walworth Central School (Boys) and Walworth Central School (Girls). The two amalgamated during the war and in 1946 were replaced by the ‘interim comprehensive school’ called Walworth County Secondary School. The log book of the boys’ school has survived, having been kept in a store by the comprehensive school, and contains a lot of valuable information.

But what happened to the log book of the girls’s school? does anyone know? Like the boys’ book, it would be an invaluable source for our research (see the label Walworth down the side of the screen). It isn’t in the London Metropolitan Archives where all the LCC records went.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Thomas Ablett at BGS

As promised in ‘Ability to draw’:

Thomas Robert Ablett (1848-1945) lived long enough to see great changes in the nature of art education. As a young man he taught art at Bradford Grammar School and, choosing to depart from the contemporary practice of hard outline drawing in pencil, encouraged the children to draw freely from memory and imagination, maintaining that the so-called Freehand Drawing of the Department of Science and Art was not freehand at all, but rather attempted geometrical drawing without instruments. His success at Bradford led to his appointment to the London School Board in 1882.

In 1888 Ablett read a paper to the Society of Arts on drawing as a means of education, and he was encouraged in that year to found the Drawing Society. Lord Leighton, Holman Hunt, Lewis Carroll, Sir John Tenniel, Viscount Bryce and Lord Baden-Powell were early supporters ; and Princess Louise, the artist daughter of Queen Victoria, was the Society's president from its inception to her death in 1939....

Ablett also organized graded art examinations and, by this means and by its exhibitions, the Society has since discovered and assisted many budding artists from Britain and abroad with awards and advice. Out- standing artists who received early encouragement from the Society included Sir William Rothenstein, Rex Whistler, Sir Gerald Kelly, P.R.A., Edward Halliday, Claude Rogers, A. R. Thomson, Robert Austin, and Anna Zinkeisen. Drawings by Whistler submitted from the age of five, and 'Babyland', are still in the possession of the Society.
Ablett made two notable contributions to methods of art education. One of these, 'written design', arose from his conviction that a child would get delight from drawing and arranging letters freely, and consisted of using letters of the alphabet as motifs for design. The modern practice of letter patterns for juniors and Marion Richardson's 'writing patterns' stemmed from Ablett's written design.

'Snapshot drawing' was Ablett's other innovation. The child was encouraged to observe an object carefully but quickly, say a plant or figure, and then draw it when removed from view. It was one variation on Boisbaudran's system, others being Catterson Smith's 'shut-eye drawing' and Marion Richardson's mental imagery. Lord Baden Powell took up this method from an early age and later introduced 'snapshot drawing' for tests for the Scout's artist's badge, appointing Ablett as examiner.

Both Cooke and Ablett arrived at their views on child art primarily from the current new theories of child education and psychology, rather than from a special appreciation of the aesthetic merit of child art. This is evident from the phrases used by Cooke in his paper of 1885: 'exercise of function . . . to evolve expression . . . to stimulate voluntary mental activity' ; and from the words of Ablett, such as 'freedom' and 'muscular sense is the element'. Ablett arrived at his methods by grasping a psychological principle. Like Bain, he believed that art must arise from an instinct of which the fulfilment was pleasurable emotion. Ablett called his system 'Drawing from Delight', and his belief that art must be primarily delight led him to seek appropriate media, such as brush and paint, for the child, suitable for easy and natural manipulation.

Both Cooke and Ablett pioneered investigations into children's scribbles and were deeply interested in the theories of Sully, which were made known to a wide public in the nineties.

From MacDonald, Stuart, History and Philosophy of Art Education. U of London Press, 1970, 327-8 -- excellent book I found when trying to find out why Britain, uniquely in Europe and America, had a respectable art school/college in nearly every significant town. Turns out it was the efforts of one man, Henry Cole, the man behind the Crystal Palace. (Other good books turned up in the same quest were by Carline, Draw They Must : a History of Teaching and Examining of Art, and Bonython and Burton, The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole.)

Does art education any longer have a connection with child psychology, let alone with the Boy or Girl Scouts and the Royal Family? (Prince Charles, perhaps?)

Incidentally the inspiration behind these guys -- Ablett and, before him, Ebenezer Cooke - and the first to take up arms against the Science and Art Department that controlled the art exams and grants -- was Ruskin.

Bradford Grammar School has, or had, a Delius Music Room and a Rothenstein Art Room.  If the second art room hasn’t been named it should clearly be the Ablett Art Room.

Learning to draw in Canada

As promised in the posting ‘Ability to draw’. Two recollections:

Groups of 4th year architecture students at Carleton University, Ottawa, would spend a term in Rome. I heard an account of one such trip from a student who’d been on it. The students made their way independently to Rome and met at a pre-arranged time in a pre-specified square. When the tutor, Tom Dubacanik (not sure of spelling -- Serbian in name, I believe, and un-PC in speech), arrived after all were gathered, his first words were , ‘Draw, you fairies! Get sketching! What do you think you’re here for?’

Their work was every day of the term to complete 4 drawings, double-elephant size, which I think was like A1 in the Napoleonic hemisphere, the largest standard size of cartridge paper. Tom D’s aim was that they should draw as readily as speaking -- no conscious processes between ‘hand and eye’. By all accounts it worked -- whatever their deficiencies they ended up able to draw -- though what they learned about architecture I didn’t gather. The displays I saw over the years in the School of Architecture were graphically stunning. I don’t know how far the tradition continues now design has become such a computerised business.

Second recollected story: Steve Fai had a 1st year group. He set them to draw self-portraits in front of a mirror. Each week one assiduous and dedicated student brought his work in and Steve, recognising the effort, awarded him 2 marks -- out of 20 -- with the instruction to do it again. One week (5? 6? 7? don’t remember) the lad came in and said, ‘I've got it!’ and he had. Steve gave him 18 and there was no looking back.

I don’t know if learning to draw is like that for everyone for whom it hasn’t already come naturally. Perhaps for others it’s incremental; perhaps that kid was unusual. I’d like to know.

Ability to draw

I've always been struck by 19th and early 20th century writers were always doing sketches of each other and of the places they were staying in. Almost every writer whose biographies you look has been drawn by one of his friends or siblings, few of whom are known as artists. I’ve noticed it in English and Russian writers, and none of the drawings I've seen are bad. I’d be proud to have done any of them.
How did they learn? in the sorts of schools these writers went to -- the men anyway -- they wouldn’t have taught drawingl, would they? not in any serious way that would yield the sort of results we see.
I did O level art by going to the Art Club after school and though I wasn’t much good at drawing, I did make a start. But I've made no effort since and now I want to learn. I’d like to put drawings on (blank) postcards from my trips abroad as so many people used to, and do animals and scenes for the kids on letters, birthday cards and the like. And amuse myself in boring meetings or when telly’s boring...
So I've had a look online at evening classes that are offered round my way. There are indeed a few but I don’t think they’re what I need. I know what I need: it’s lots of practice in front of things, scenes and people, with other people so we can motivate each other and with a helpful tutor who’ll set the tasks and give advice.
Instead what I find is the usual course description bollocks that’s perhaps the effect of having to meet government vocational criteria to teach anything at all -- the idea of education for leisure or self-improvement having been expunged from the purposes of colleges and institutes. Thus:

Skills will be developed step by step through a series of carefully designed exercises.
We will start with the basics - how to hold a pencil - and progress at the end of six weeks to drawing a portrait with a difference!

A topic for each lesson follows, with objectives. The first is

Aim:  To realise the importance of objective observation in drawing.

Following an introduction to the course and basic studio craft, students will experiment with the mark making possibilities of different materials.

Then we have Relationships, Negative Spaces, Light and Shade, Making Plans and finally

A Drawing !
Aim:  For students to produce a rewarding drawing using all skills practised to date and testing their skills of objective observation.

Well, it might work -- much depends on the tutor and, as I say, the reality may be much more flexible.

But my instincts and educational experience are all against this approach. I disagree with the philosophy of starting with component sub-skills and only in lesson 6 putting them together. It’s fifty years since we realised that you don’t develop writing ability by first teaching words, then sentences, then connections, then paragraphs, but by having the kids writing a complete piece, even if only a sentence as long as it’s real writing and not a ‘carefully designed exercise’ -- from Day 1.

(Actually art teachers, too, knew this, as long ago as the 1870s, including one Thomas Ablett at Bradford Grammar School -- and they organised to resist the government’s prescriptions -- on which schools’ funding depended then too -- of exercises in drawing cubes, spheres and pyramids. I'll do a separate posting on Ablett.)

I want to be in a group that sits by the Thames and draws the ash tree opposite, or the bridge and buildings down the river or an old chap on a bench -- and myself, that too, as included in the exercises on the course. As for mark-making and how to hold a pencil, let the tutor show me the possibilities when I'm struggling with the foliage or the hairy surface of a coat. Knowledge at point of need, is the slogan for this sort of practical learning, not ‘front-end-loaded’ as David Layton used to say when talking at Leeds University about design and technology education.

I want to be able to sit down in front of something, or just with memory and imagination, and draw something that looks like it and is nice to look at.  How's that for sophisticated?

There’s another way to do it, one I was aware of in Carleton University (Ottawa) School of Architecture, where the standard of drawing was out of this world. But that calls for a separate post. Another separate post.