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?