Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Blog lapse

I intended to do better but the usual stuff has stopped me. The blog is where I can give expression to some of my current thoughts, impressions and reactions, but it takes time and some care and I can only manage it when my other writing activity (or writing plus research) doesn’t fully occupy me, as it has done since late summer.

What’s been absorbing my attention is, for those who’ve been following, the research on Walworth School and the book we’re writing together and haven’t finished, though we were supposed to have by now -- hence the pressure.

All this will not last and I've no intention of shutting the blog down. I'll be back when things ease and I'm retired again. In the meantime my apologies to those kind friends who follow me!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Enough opening ceremonies...

One a month will do me. I passed on the Paralympics ceremony last night, after a brief sampling, not because I thought it wouldn’t be good, as the Olympics one was -- I enjoyed that greatly (as a whole, I should add, being honest) -- but live television is no way to see it.

I appreciate that tv offers some sense of the occasion as it’s lived, and conveys something of the atmosphere and crowd’s excitement. Those aren’t nothing but overall I wish I could have watched an edited film of the event. The tv camera often get an inferior view: too distant, too underlit, too confusing, stuff in getting in the view. Too often I simply couldn’t understand or follow what was going on. The same event made into a film -- like the film of, say, Woodstock -- would have make the performances and spectacles that much more immediate and omitted a lot of the tedious parading. An hour would have been fine for the Olympics ceremony; can’t say for the Paralympics.

None of this is to take away from the significance and the generally heartening character of the two sets of Games. It’s been terrific all round.

For all I know, of course, there may be films in preparation.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Mina Road HIgher Grade School, 1903

We’ve just had the following from an Australian, Stephen James, who found this blog -- quoted with his permission:

Today my mother (in her eighties) gave me a prize book won by my maternal grandfather (now deceased) in 1903. I thought it might interest you. My grandfather, Charles Arthur Welch, was born on 24 February 1894 at 14 Kempstead Road, Camberwell, London. His father was a young fish porter/labourer and his young mother a seamstress, both aged 21.

As far as I can gather, Charles' father died when he was very young, at which point Charles left school for work, later joining the Sussex Regiment in the British Army which served in India. He had wanted to study chemistry at university but this was not possible. He later married a woman from Bath and emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in the 1920s. Later, my mother excelled in science and I ended up doing a PhD (albeit in Politics) at Princeton. It is interesting to see the scholarly links through the history.

I know you are much more interested in the postwar period of the school, but I thought you, or a colleague, might find the details of the prize book interesting:

French-English English French Dictionary by A. Mendel (edited by G. F. Barwick of the British Museum) (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, n.d.) Pocket edition

Presented July 1903 for Conduct, Progress, Attendce. at East Lambeth Division, Mina Road Higher Grade School to Charles Welsh [sic] by

Edward P. Paul, Head Teacher.

If you have any information on the history of the school, particularly during its early days until the end of the First World War I, would be much obliged. I'd also be interested in whether there might be any archives or information relating to students and their work. Also, did Edward P. Paul move on to another school or did he end his teaching there?

In a second email Stephen writes:

Charles' father was Thomas Henry Welch (fish porter/labourer who married at 21 and lived at 28 Longcroft Rd, Camberwell--now in Burgess Park). Nearby was Kempshead (not Kempstead, my mistake) Rd. Neither was far from Mina Road. Both Longcroft Road and Kempshead Road, Camberwell, were bombed during The Blitz and then subject to, I suspect, slum clearance later.

I recently read some of the original notebooks of Charles Booth (LSE collection) who said Longcroft Rd was a notorious (crime, alcoholism, etc.) and very poor area. Given that Thomas Henry Welch was a fish porter/labourer (working at the Borough Market) and his wife Sarah was a laundress I was wondering how Charles, his son, might have gone to a reasonable school like Mina Road--but as you say the fees were low (and/or there was competitive entry?).

We can answer some of the queries. Mr Paul was still headmaster during the First World War -- what happened to him afterwards I don’t know. (See my earlier post). Entry to higher grade schools -- where pupils could stay from 12 to 16 -- was by examination; there were fees but we believe they were affordable for working-class families. Unlike the ordinary elementary schools (including Mina Road Elementary School on the same site, taking children from infants upwards) the HGS had science facilities and taught French. The LCC wanted them to become a sort of working-class grammar school; the government preferred to keep the brightest members of the working class in their place -- in the trades and non-professional clerical and commercial roles. The school’s name changed to Mina Road Central School in 1911.

How it took 2 or 3 generations or more for the first family member to get to university is a story that continued into our period.

It would be good to have more on this: can anyone help?

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Walworth early 50s -- new evidence

Pat and I recently interviewed someone with a good memory of the school from 1948 to 1955, though her memories relate more to the school and teachers in general than to English and what went on in the lessons.

She was taught English by Arthur Harvey for her entire time at the school. She confirms what others have told us, that Harvey had his favourites -- of which she was one in that class -- though this didn’t lead to any unfairness in marking. Some of the favourites joined Harvey in the Quick Service Cafe after school but not our informant: she belonged to an alternative group that met in another cafe, on the other side of the Old Kent Road, around the biology teacher, Eric Palmer.

Palmer was a quite different kettle of fish and he and Harvey didn’t like each other. Alex McLeod was associated with his group. Palmer taught frankly about sex and is said to have favoured free love (though his relationships were entirely ‘appropriate’, as we say now). But his main educational concern was teaching pupils about life. He was devoted to open air activities on the lines of the 1930s German hiking and health movement. He was associated with the Woodcraft Folk, took his group camping at their site and called them each by their Woodcraft name -- he himself was Fox. By all accounts Palmer was a thoroughly good thing and pupils benefited by his teaching and personal attention. Our informant regards him as one of the teachers at Walworth who had a lifelong influence on her (Harvey was without doubt another).

Another set of impressions from the same source supports what we’ve been hearing often, that Miss O'Reilly, the school’s first real head, was an ‘authoritarian’ who ruled pupils and staff alike ‘with a rod of iron’. What puzzles us, however, is that she was certainly a progressive in her principles: she believed in a school giving a social education as well as an academic one, through the practice of friendly and respectful relations; she stressed constantly that all pupils were equally valuable; she enthusiastically embraced the concept of an experimental comprehensive school; she introduced form meetings and a school council, and an innovative social studies curriculum that involved individual project work (not a great success, it seems) and a great deal of choice. She made unconventional appointments like Harvey and Palmer, and also Sean O’Regan the art teacher.

What’s the explanation? we suspect that her principles were more liberal than her personality could tolerate and that there was a real conflict between the two. But what sort of evidence would help us find out?

Walworth -- more needed

Officially we’ve come to the end of our data-gathering: what remains is writing a book and, we hope, doing some presentations for interested people from our three schools. However, we’re aware there are embarrassing gaps in our coverage. In my last post I remarked how little we had on Harold Rosen’s time at Walworth (admittedly less than three full years). The same could be said of John Dixon (1959-63). So, we’d still welcome more and will add anything useful we receive to the pile we made publicly available in our archive (and also, ideally, via a website -- would some millionaire ex-pupil care to fund this?)

However, not every sort of written or spoken memory is equally useful. Compare,

I remember her as a sympathetic but strict teacher, and her teaching must have been effective because I passed my O and A level English


I enjoyed writing poems and [the teacher] often pinned them on the noticeboard


[Writing] was not my thing. Being creative to that extent was not my thing. I mean whenever we… had to write a poem, this became a family effort, and the family would gather around, and what we would do was we would gather together such old Christmas cards and birthday cards that still remained in the family archive, we would get those out and find all the words that rhymed, make a list of all the words that rhymed, and I would somehow try to work them into the requisite poem.

[Acknowledgements and thanks to Ken Russell.  I've edited that slightly from the transcript of his interview.]

That admittedly wasn’t about a remembered lesson, but memories of the experience of doing a particular piece of work are also valuable. We’re interested in not only what the teachers did but in what it was like for the pupils.

Or the following, from two emails -- thanks to Janet Midwinter:

He [Simon Clements, 1959-64] sometimes remarked that he'd 'enjoyed' reading something which was incredibly flattering and encouraging.  He fostered the idea that there was no right way or wrong way to do it which was liberating. It was all about ideas. The important thing was telling the story, including dialogue and descriptions of characters.  It was as if your exercise was to entertain.  He wanted us to not worry - just write.  In some cases, like the 'books' we had a second chance to go back and re-write after discussion.  It was satisfying to be able to improve yourself and immediately see the results.

We were told to describe characters, their feelings and  the streets they walked in.  We were encouraged to visualise our own areas for inspiration. Best of all we didn't have to use formal language when a character spoke.  We were allowed to use slang and portray them exactly as we wanted them to sound - even if that involved Cockney accents or others more exotic.

I recall that he often allowed noisy cross arguments where yelling would be briefly tolerated.  Then it would be stopped, started again when he pointed to someone who had not initially taken part, involving others who hadn't spoken, until it built up to another crescendo.  

It gave me the impression we were doing something we shouldn't have been allowed to do.  That's why it was exciting.  And he always seemed to enjoy it.  As if the heat of the moment promoted better debate.

Those are admittedly from an exceptional writer, but many people have been surprised at how well they can write when they sit down and give it a try after all these years. After all, Walworth pupils weren’t taught English just anywhere!

The things to remember are:

[what it was like] being there -- your thoughts and reactions as well as what happened.

Harold Rosen -- more

Those who remember Harold Rosen at Walworth (English, January 1956 to July 1958) will be interested in the blog that his son Michael is doing on him. The most recent posting is a wonderful picture of a young Harold in army uniform (US -- by a strange set of circumstances he was born on US territory).

The caption is wrong: he was a young Harold but his age was 26, not 16. He’d been working as a teacher for some time before being called up.

Our research evidence continues to be contradictory, often leaving us with no basis for deciding what to think. If we had lots more people’s reminiscences it would be easier, of course. Rosen is a case in point. Some of our informants remember him as a wonderful, inspiring, warm and humorous teacher, but one person -- recalls him, with Alex McLeod, as -- she felt -- looking down on girls like her as ‘common’. And, most astounding, one recent interviewee  -- admittedly not interested in English -- who had Rosen for all the three years that Rosen was there has barely any recollection of him at all and says that his friend in the class called him Happy Harry because he always looked so miserable, sitting at his desk at the front.

So we’d be glad of more memories of Harold -- you can send them as comments on our project blog -- click Comments here -- or by email to

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Olympics -- my mistake

‘Over a third of British medal winners…were from private schools, which educate 7% of the school population’ -- today’s Guardian. So I got it badly wrong a couple of days ago.

But, as you’d expect, the preponderance of privately educated medallists was higher in sports like rowing and lower in cycling and boxing.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympics, education etc.

Like so many of the commentators on the Games I'm a reformed sceptic/cynic. What I wrote before -revealed a tinge of respect creeping into my jaundiced outlook: the torchbearer I eventually glimpsed after the long procession of sponsors’ buses and corporate cheerleaders looked like an ordinary decent salt-of-the-earth kid like so many I’d taught in schools in London, Devon and Yorkshire.

I've in the event been impressed and moved by all the things the commentators have: a superbly managed and creatively conceived spectacle, lovely people on all sides -- athletes, helpers, soldiers, audiences, boring sport becoming interesting for the first time. Even the national anthems, podiums, flag-raisings. (What a pity Wales wasn’t a country for Olympics purposes: then, if their athletes had then done their stuff, we could have had the best anthem of all. As it was we had to make do with the runner-up, Russia’s. Shame about the British one, of course.)

What I liked is that despite the oppressive business presence (Coca Cola, Samsung), the dominant feeling was inescapably non-corporate, non-accountancy-driven, non-managerial, non-PR/HR/government-speak and instead human, decent, warm. Plenty of ‘excellence’ (hated term) was in evidence, but also respect for and recognition of ordinary people and ordinary virtues, like solidarity, love of city and country and respect for honest effort as much as for ‘achievement’.

I liked it that so many of the athletes were people from ordinary or even disadvantaged backgrounds, and so many from unregarded parts of Britain like the North and Northern Ireland. Few seemed to from public schools or even from well-known schools -- even the gold medal canoeist, which you’d think an expensive sport, got there by drifting along to a local club after his day at an undistinguished provincial school. If the list of schools topping the examinations and Oxbridge entry league tables include almost none that aren’t in the south of England, those contributing Olympic athletes is another story.

British sport had been helped by two obvious things: immigration, obviously, and lottery money that had been spent wisely and to the benefit of the provinces, e.g. the way funding had been used to promote cycling and the athletics training centre in Sheffield.

I was impressed by the bold creativity of the organisers (Seb Coe?) -- picking the risky Danny Boyle to do the opening ceremony -- and terrific graphics, design and architecture. It was the sort of genius that used at one time to inform the BBC’s comedy programming and their drama production (one-off plays, I'm thinking of). Lesson: let creative people get on with it without having to negotiate with ‘management’.

Cameron’s educational response has been to say there’ll be more money (which will mean the money they took away in the first place) for competitive sport in schools. Their other educational push is for ‘excellence’. But my understanding is that the money that was put into sporting activities by the last government (including lottery money), and that has paid off in the Olympics, was for fitness, health and active pursuits generally, not just competition, and that what these Olympics at their best have showcased isn’t just ‘excellence’ but sportsmanship and decent behaviour -- everything that bankers and corporate management aren’t about; and that the money went not just to the selected best (though that was important) but also to facilities for everyone. It’s the latter we want more of in schools and local areas -- swimming pools, for instance. We can have any number of Tescos, it seems, but no political party has the guts to say we’ll take half Tesco’s profits off them and put the money into an equal distribution of swimming pools -- or concern halls or train and bus services.

I think the lesson for education, since that’s what I set out to write about, is that the aim should be a general flowering and flourishing: make provision -- facilities and staffing -- for all sorts of potentially rewarding academic and cultural pursuits, from Greek and engineering to learning the bassoon and the high jump, make kids want to pursue them and show them how. Done right, this will lead to no end of ‘excellence’ (and university applications) but also to a population that knows what to do with itself and doesn’t easily get bored and reduced to daytime TV.

My absent best reader

I'm not sure how many readers I now have -- I won’t check again until I've resumed a more regular outpouring -- and of course I've never known who they all were. But a number have responded quite regularly, either via published Comments or by email to me. Of these some have been interested in the research about Walworth School that I'm involved with, others in my broader themes of education, English teaching, literature and the arts.

It’s worth mentioning that if people found it easier to work out how to add a Comment to the blog, or could do so without getting a Google ID, more might do it. I don’t know why signing on is necessary: submitted Comments come to me anyway and I decide whether to publish them or not. Those in Mandarin I tend to reject.

Commenting has never taken off big time on my blog and that doesn’t worry me since it’s principally a way for me to keep writing and the responses that seriously make me think and that I can’t not take account of if I'm really, as I like to claim, in search of understanding, tend to come from a few people I know well.

Or knew, because the best of them, Andrew Stibbs, died at the end of last year. Andrew read and responded so faithfully -- by email rather than Comment -- that he became a large part of the ‘envisaged reader’ who I felt I was writing for. I’d reply to him either by email or, without publicly declaring that’s what I was doing, in a further blog posting. The exchange was a continuation of a correspondence that had started in 1959 after we both left school and went to different universities. Andrew knew more than me, about more stuff, and was both cleverer and more creative, including as a painter and poet. I suspect that a large part of the faltering of my blogging over the last few months has been because I've no longer had him to hold in mind as my sympathetic, critical and rightly demanding reader.  I've seriously missed his reactions to my postings.

Another reason, by the way, that I don’t get more comments is that most people haven’t got time to ‘follow’ blogs but only manage to look in from time to time. I know this from my own dealings with other people’s blogs that I admire and enjoy -- I already spend more than enough time on the computer and not enough reading books, full-length ones, from cover to cover. There’s a new blog that I want to read regularly but the author’s productivity is such that I know I won’t keep it up although he’s a terrific writer and his stuff is of great interest and means a lot to me. This person has loads of time: he’s recently retired from a very full-time job that, unlike mine (university teaching and research), affords no way of being continued outside the organisational structure. He’s moved from the city to the remote countryside and he’s on his own all day while his wife is at work. It’s about his current and past life -- Bermondsey, Bexley, other places in London and now Norfolk -- but plenty more besides, a wide range of things a lively mind reflects on. I recommend it: here’s the link:

Incidentally, my exchange with this blogger -- on my side almost exclusively as reader at the moment -- is also a continuation. He and I have been corresponding since, I think, the late 1960s.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Teaching student teachers to teach literature

I taught PGCE (graduate teacher education) for only four years and keep thinking still, six years later, of how I might have done it better. I wish I’d had it clearer then how one might approach ‘teaching' a text like a poem, novel, part of a novel, story or non-fiction text treated as literature. Yesterday for some reason I started thinking how I might have laid it out in a session. Here’s a rough sketch.

Ask the group (the student teachers) the following questions about a text it’s proposed to teach in school:

  1. What do you think it’s important to notice, feel, mark, note or register about this poem etc? what noticings (etc) would in your view constitute an adequate reading or mean the kid has ‘got’ the poem?
Two notes to add here:

(a)        Distinguish between the noticings etc that a school student or reasonably responsive English speaker might be expected to come to on his or her untutored own, through such resources as a lay person brings to bear, and those that might result from concepts (‘scientific’ lit crit concepts) and knowledge that an English teacher might impart. Consider, as a possible general rule: should we be starting with the first sort? (A whole discussion is needed on this.)

(b)        ‘in your view’, I said above but you have to take into account that that might not be their view. See below.

2.        What would need to go on between you, the class and the text for those noticings to occur, those aspects or features to be felt? What processes and activities might you instigate?

  1. How then will you know what has been registered, noticed, marked or felt? How will you get those results, that learning, to show? This is a question about evaluation, in the sense not of grading but on ‘formative’ evaluation or getting the information by which to proceed effectively.
Now the only way a student’s experience can show, so you can be aware of it, is if it’s materially manifested in an overt sign, which may be anything from a smile or uneasy shifting in the seat to an essay. Whatever it is that’s happened in the students has to come out in the open and enter the ‘space of appearance’ in Hannah Arendt’s phrase. A whole lot of discussion is therefore required on the forms of productive activity that could be encouraged in the classroom which will indicate what has been going on in the student’s head.

I suggested in point 1 that teachers begin by identifying the things they think students should ‘get’ in the text but observed in 1(b) that students might well have a different take. Now you don’t want to preempt or cut off reactions that are different from the ones you think they should have that are the same as yours, or give the sense that yours are right and theirs somehow not legitimate. Devising forms of productive activity that will allow responses to appear that you’d no way of anticipating is a difficult matter and one of the hardest and most important thing English teachers have to learn to do.

        4.        There’s an extra complication: it may take some form of expression for the student to become aware of the nature of his or her response. For it to become known to the experiencer, the experience may need to be manifested out there, in the public (accessible to others) ‘space of appearance’, in, for instance, spoken or written words. Indeed, it may only be when ‘semiotically anchored’ or attached to signs that some sorts of experience may be said to come into existence at all, or at any rate definite existence as realities to be mentally entertained and contemplated. It may be in giving expression to the response to a text that the response happens ‘in the first place’.

And here we have to note that the notion of ‘expression’ is profoundly misleading, as if something that’s inside (mental, psychic) gets outside, by a process of ex-pression, pressing out. In fact there’s no way that what’s inside, a thought or feeling, can itself be made visible or apprehensible since what is perceptible is material and those inner occurrences aren’t. (Except that some thoughts are already ‘encoded’ internally in language to varying degrees….)
What actually happens in so-called ‘expression’ is that to whatever is ‘inside’ is added something else, something of quite a different, namely material, order.

As a responsible PGCE tutor I would want to supply references to articles and books in which the authors give serious thought to, and report their classroom experiments relating to, (a) forms of production to give ‘expression’ to responses, ones that could be set up without preempting those responses; and (b) the theoretically difficult issue of the disjunction between experience and the expression of it and the way in which it may only be in expression that experience may be said to come fully into existence at all.

But I'm now so out of touch with the whole business that no such references come to mind. But I'm also willing to bet that none of the main ‘method books’ on English teaching of the last, what, twenty years, at any rate in Britain, have anything substantial to say on these issues.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The ultimate empty signifier

Not a time for soundbites, I know, but I’ve been touched by the hand of history this week. The Olympic torch came through Surbiton and I went out specially (apart from having to go to Waitrose) to stand by the road with the crowd and watch. So I can tell my grandchildren I was there and gentlemen of England who couldn’t be arsed to get up would have nothing to tell theirs.

I hated it. For half an hour before the torch’s arrival (from Tolworth, history-touched too) we had to watch a succession of heavily padded police on motorbikes ineffectually waving us back on the pavement, cars carrying important people (evidently--consultants, no doubt), bikes ridden by, I suppose, athletes, judging by their gear, a Coca Cola bus, a Samsung bus, a RBS bus and more buses of other ‘sponsors’, each emitting loud music and conveying compulsory jollity via grimacing ‘athletes’ inside and pom-pom and tutu girls on the roof. In short, tacky.

Then the torch and torch-bearer appeared. Such was the crowd that they were very near before I saw them, and then my first glimpse of the torch did nothing to alleviate my disillusionment. It looked as if it had been knocked up for a kid’s party by some desperate mum from a bit of gold paper and sellotape.

Finally I was able to see the torch bearer and at this point I stopped hating it and took back all my whinges. Unlike the actual or would be ‘personalities’, fellow-travellers and Coke groupies, carrying the torch was a manifestly ordinary teenage kid, a lad who didn’t have a personality’s looks but seemed disarmingly awkward and embarrassed. I thought, if all this is really all about acknowledging the likes of him, then I'm with it.

On its journey through Britain (8,000 miles, I keep hearing) the torch (or torches -- they’re apparently disposable, unlike the flame) has attracted large and enthusiastic crowds in an outpouring that seems genuine (though do you remember Princess Di?). And I wonder, what’s the enthusiastic outpouring for? and I'm driven to conclude it’s for -- enthusiastic outpouring. Certainly, many of the bearers are said to be admirable, but I wonder how many are known to more than a few of the watchers. I doubt if the motivation to turn out and pour out is mainly a desire to respect a respected or loved local.

It’s a celebration -- of a celebration. There’s nothing behind it, nothing it’s a celebration of; it stands for nothing, not, anyway, in the minds of the thousands who have turned out as opposed to the official blurb. When a flame was carried from a shrine in ancient Greece, it commanded respect or awe because it was sacred -- this was the nearest we’d get to the gods. But this torch isn’t anything sacred and isn’t even the symbol of anything, anything at all, let alone anything sacred.

Torch and flame are the ultimate empty signifiers, there simply to signify, intransitive, or to signify, transitive, supply your own object. The latter is just what I imagine people have done.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Unsatisfying literature

A long intermission, that was: high pressure period for inspecting and writing up data (book on the research -- Walworth and two other schools -- due November) so I haven’t felt like extra writing on top. The pressure has eased for the time being so no reason not to resume -- I.e to use this forum to do my musing -- with Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is a historical novel by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell and his relations with, at the political level, his two employers, Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. My previous reading had been Canada by Richard Ford. After finishing Wolf Hall I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read two terrific novels in a row: I was absorbed in both and admired them immensely, and still do in retrospect.

I resolved after Canada that I’d read it again, as I increasingly do with novels. (I haven’t done it yet because I lent it to someone who I haven’t seen to get it back from, but I certainly will.) While reading Wolf Hall I was certain I’d reread that too -- but in the following days and weeks I haven’t felt so sure and haven’t felt the urge to start. There’s something importantly different about the two books, it seems, and getting at it seems of interest as a way of understanding something significant about English.

I've always felt inadequate -- under-educated -- in dealing with literature. I didn’t do A level English and when I switched to English at Oxford the ‘course’ was something of a joke: we read the books, wrote essays, and that was about it apart from the odd seminar with good young lecturers like John Carey. I did no thinking about what literature was, what poetry was etc., and I never had any help with reading ‘difficult’ 20th century poetry beyond The Waste Land; no one showed us and I'm still floundering with much modern poetry, though I like reading it. I feel there must be a key, an essential way of approaching it that, once you’ve got it, will banish many obscurities and show the motivation behind elements for the inclusion of which I can see no logic. And now I'm floundering thinking about those two novels.

Both are beautifully written, in different ways. With Mantel I wasn’t expecting much from the writing (I've never read anything else by her): this was a ‘historical novel’ and it would all be in the story and the characters. The description, scene-setting etc would be adequate -- functional -- but the prose would be flat. It wasn’t: the sentences were lovely, the texture was such savouring it was a large part of the pleasure. This was quality writing, I realised, as well as being a great story, the people in it fascinating and often sympathetic, the dialogue sharp and witty. (What’s more, the research behind the book had clearly been thorough; I felt confident that if you wanted to know about Tudor England, this would be a trustworthy place to start. Needless to say, I don’t really know that.)

But now, looking back, I'm not sure what it all amounted to. Was my reading essentially just a series of richly enjoyable and stimulating imaginative experiences, appreciations of beautiful texture -- and if so, what’s wrong with that and what else would it be if it wasn’t that? (The terrible judgment, ‘entertainment’, springs to mind.)

There are other good books, also well-written, that I ended up feeling the same way about. They all fall into the category of ‘genre fiction’. There are detective novels (Chandler, Parker etc), books like Robert Harris’s Fatherland, stories set in World War II and Cold War novels; Le Carré, of course, but I'm thinking particularly of an author I read more recently: military, espionage, USSR, Fall of France--Alan Furst’s The Polish Officer and Night Soldiers -- both well written and not just functional but, like all the others, I enjoyed them immensely but they left little behind except some scenes and situations that are still powerfully present to me. Wolf Hall seems, after this short time gap, to fall into that category; Canada doesn’t, though that, too, has left vivid impressions of the city of Great Falls, the boy’s world, the misery of the unbroken miles of Saskatchewan wheat fields.

Canada is more austere. The voice of the narrator (middle-aged man recalling his adolescence though one feels his voice hasn’t changed much in those years) is speechlike -- but not slangy -- and eschews literary types of expression while still doing all the descriptive work that was needed. Perhaps the quality the book has could better be described as formality, despite the relative informality of a style that owes much to speech. The language is of course written language in that it continues for the length of a book and is organised in paragraphs and chapters, and no doubt in features of syntax which I’d need the book back to demonstrate. Whatever its characteristics, it is above all consistent: the book establishes a decorum in its diction (see Donald Davie, Purity and Diction in English Verse) and sticks to it, with an effect overall that’s poetic. In Wolf Hall (and Furst) there is a pervasive poeticness -- exhilaratingly figurative and evocative -- but that’s a very different matter and doesn’t leave the lasting deposit in the mind that Canada does.

It’s something like -- this is the idea I'm playing with: the difference between a book that’s poetic and a book that’s, in effect, a poem, poetry.

Did some such distinction -- poetic, non-poetic -- lie behind Leavis’s distinction between the ‘Great Tradition’ of English fiction and less worthy writers like Trollope and Wells?

However, my judgment of books on one reading are unreliable. All this will have to be revised, no doubt, when I get round to re-reading, though whether I'll do that with Wolf Hall -- at least soon (I can’t see myself holding off reading the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies) -- I can’t say.

I wonder whether it’s its poetic character that makes for my willing re-reading of Kipling’s rather unregarded Kim over most Trollope, say, though I generally enjoy Trollope (the good bits, anyway), and for my satisfying rereading of Carlyle’s French Revolution (see marginal links). Will reflect.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

My conductors

There have been obituaries of James Gaddarn, a conductor, one of two with whom I've had encounters in my life. In a summer vacation Johnny Walker (of Rastrick, Brighouse) and I were hitching from Oxford to Pembrokeshire to join my parents on holiday and Gaddarn pulled up in an old Rolls Royce and took us all the way. I remember more of the car than the conversation.

My second conductor was in Cambridge, Mass, where I'd arrived by car from Ottawa on a tour with my son in the 1990s; a bed-and-breakfast agency referred us to a house and said we'd like it because the owner was English.  It turned out to be Benjamin Zander, conductor of the lesser of the two Boston orchestras, who invited us to listen to his recording of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring on massive speakers, claiming that his was only performance that delivered the speed the composer had wanted: the players in Stravinsky's own time ‘couldn’t cut it.'  Having generously let us listen and handed us the CD he then informed us of the price. Of course I paid up and have never heard of him since.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Messing up classic drama

I've sounded off before about how Shakespeare directors feel the need to set their productions in some historical period (other than Shakespeare’s and any that have already been done).  It gets in the way of the text unnecessarily; but faced with the question of what a production would be like that doesn’t get in the way I gave up and voted for semi-staged readings.

But perhaps I should persist and go to more productions; perhaps some do work. I'm wondering that because Handel’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne last year (BBC4 last Friday night, available for a week here)  was a really messed up production that worked; I thought it was fabulous. I've never, of course, seen Rinaldo done straight, or even listened to it on CD.

Instead of being set in the Crusades, the action took place in a traditional school with uniform, canes, gowns and mortar boards.  The main chap, Rinaldo, was a schoolboy/Crusader and was played by a woman; the whole of the Crusades stuff was this kid’s fantasy, a way of getting revenge on his horrible bullying classmates and the hateful teachers. The schoolgirls (pure St Trinian’s) doubled as Furies; the other school boys were play up, play up and play the game good chaps who made good English Crusaders.

Visually it was a treat with special effects, multiple revealings of sets, breathtaking choreography and enlivening lighting; the singing of course was superb. Above all it was hilarious, yet this wasn’t incompatible with the thing being moving and dramatically gripping. The characters were real and distinctive; I really liked Rinaldo and his speccy girlfriend and revelled in the evilness of the villains, male and female. The bondage and SM overtones added spice.

Perhaps the difference from Shakespeare is that Handel’s libretto couldn’t be taken seriously on its own merits; it was simply the vehicle for the music, which in the manner of the operas of the time used them, at least after the first occurrence of each chunk, less for their meaning and contribution to the story than as repeatable matter on which musical variations and developments could be constructed and subtle developments and vagaries of a character’s personality and feeling played out by changes in the singing and the repertoire of action and bodily and facial expression. So what happens is highly formal ritual (arias, repetitions) and constant development with nothing the same twice.

With Shakespeare, while there’s certainly ritual and formality -- patterns as unrealistic as those of opera, like the extended exchanges in As You Like It that I wrote about earlier and a few times shortly afterwards -- what’s repeated and patterned is mainly at a more general or abstract level and the words themselves are unique to each successive speech -- and thus carry much more of the meaning that’s essential to experiencing the play.

Perhaps the reason for the difference in my responses (Rinaldo as against many Shakespeare productions) is simply that in the opera the director’s superimposed setting was carried by the cast and the set stylishly and cleverly whereas Shakespeare is so often clunky, with lots of superfluous action that isn’t wonderful to watch but just irritating. Bloody actors. I assume Glyndebourne used dancers.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Richards on suburbs

I mentioned The Castles on the Ground (J.M. Richards, 1946) in my last post. Here’s how it starts.

1 The Englishman's Home

Ewbank'd inside and Atco'd out, the English suburban residence and the garden which is an integral part of it stand trim and lovingly cared for in the mild sunshine. Everything is in its place. The abruptness, the barbarities of the world are far away. There is not much sound, except perhaps the musical whirr and clack of a mowing machine being pushed back and forth over a neighbouring lawn and the clink of cups and saucers and a soft footfall as tea is got ready indoors. There is not much movement either: a wire- haired terrier lazily trotting round the garden in a not very hopeful search for something new to smell, and the pages of a newspaper being turned and refolded by some leisurely individual in a deck chair. It is an almost windless day. The leaves of the Virginia creeper (ampélopsis veitchii) which climbs the rough-cast wall just behind the window of the best bedroom hardly stir, and even the birds only hop—and flutter a few feet in the air, and hop again— along the ornamental ridge of the red-tiled roof.

Perhaps a tradesman's van is making its rounds. Perhaps at this moment, on the other side of the screen of privet hedge and may and laburnum which separates the garden scent of new grass cuttings from the warm peppery scent that radiates from asphalt pavements in summertime, the baker's boy is halting his cart. In another moment he will push open the low wooden gate with its embossed copper name-plate on the rail, and will carelessly let it swing to behind him as he strides up the gravel path with his basket of loaves on his arm. But this is only the tradesman's entrance, and the faint squeak of the hinge and the sound the latch makes as the gate swings back will not be very disturbing...

Richards wasn’t writing about my suburb -- definitely southern, Teddington or Twickenham, perhaps.

Childhood in suburb and city

The town I live in is a Victorian suburb that owes its existence to the railway line into Waterloo. This morning being springlike (birdsong, flowering trees, no leaves yet) I walked down to the river thinking how pleasant it was. One road was lined with 1930s semis which, though of unusual design, reminded me of where I lived in Bradford to the age of 12. The district was called Great Horton by the Post Office though it was on a plateau looking down on Great Horton, on what had recently been fields between the top of the slope and the old village of Wibsey. So Wibsey Infants was my first school, Horton Bank Top Junior my second. Where we lived was a 1930s lower middle class suburb of semis -- acres of them, all privately owned. Apart from the occasional doctor or dentist the highest status occupants were browbeaten teachers.

So, not posh--not the jasmined and aubretiaed fairy land with detached houses ‘Ewbank’d inside and Atco’d out’ and with roads lined with cherry trees described by J.M. Richards in Castles on the Ground of 1946. Still true suburb nevertheless from which all men disappeared into town by the morning bus or tram and archetypal in its monotony of low buildings and wide, underused roads with grass verges. The gardens were small; big enough for a privet hedge, small lawn and the odd laburnum but nothing like the landscaped grounds of more upmarket suburbs on the road to Ilkley near Harry Ramsdens. There was little call for Atcos.
Moore Avenue, though now I look they seem to be groups of three, not semis. 
In this world which seemed short of children of my own age the play was desultory among the bland, underpopulated spaces. To either village on foot was a long and boring drag. The only excitement was the leftover wild patch of Moor Fields on the edge of our plateau, and there at about age 8 a critical mass of boys was to be found ready for building dens and starting fires.

Widdy's house (on the left) from Moore Avenue where it goes down steeply to Great Horton Road.  Now those are semis. The front of Widdy's house looked onto Moor Fields.  Kenneth Widdowson was my best friend but we went to different secondary schools and I don't know what became of him.
There was also a quite unsuburban edge of dangerous reality: an unprotected quarry edge, with a path to one side down a less steep slope, at the bottom of which was the quarry (disused, with pools) and beyond that The Slums, packed Victorian terraces blackened with the smoke that poured from the chimneys of houses and mills. And here lived the Quarry Gang who we'd have called feral if we'd know the word. We occasionally caught glimpses of them careering about the spoil heaps in the quarry or converging up the separate cobbled streets under the gas lights. They may have even ventured up the slope onto our territory, causing us to flee into the snickets between the blocks of semis.

Great Horton from Moor Fields.  The grass is where the quarry has now been filled in and the slums (terraces with stone roofs, outside lavatories, one cold tap) are long gone and replaced.  All the buildings were as black as that church, including the giant Lister's Mill in the distance, above where we moved when I was 12.
The contrast between the classic working-class life of those kids and my own was brought to mind earlier this morning by reading the transcript of one of our research interviews. A former pupil of Walworth, from a peaceful and stable working-class home, refers to friends who often came to the sanctuary of his house from unhappier lives that were troubled by neglect and violence. Children growing up in that area knew things that I never did. Our play reflected our reality, bland, innocent and cocooned. They lived among men whose work, mainly manual, was nearby and visible, and some of whom got drunk, spent the housekeeping money, fought and beat their wives. None of those features entered my childhood. I never saw adults fighting or even seriously arguing, or drunk except when we came out of the Cosy Cinema on Wibsey from an evening show, hastening out of the village to safety on the boring 1930s Moore Avenue with its sodium lights and reassuring Tudorbethan frontages with lit windows showing placid family scenes.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Inactive blog

I'm aware a fair number of friends and sympathetic persons read this blog from time to time and I apologise for the sporadic nature of recent postings. The reason, as usual during such periods, it that I'm in a phase of having to do a lot of other writing, to do with the research I've frequently referred to. After a stint of that the prospect of more writing isn’t attractive. I don’t intend to drop the blog, though. I'll be back, but can’t at the moment say when.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Teaching for a better society

We had an end-of-project conference the other day to report our findings to other researchers, people involved in training English teachers and a fair representation of former teachers from the period we've been studying, 1945-65. There were also a handful of young teachers from London schools.

The striking contrast with today is that there existed then a significant number of London teachers who were so concerned with how well they were able to do their job that they were willing to give up endless evenings and weekends to meet together in study groups, for discussion and to hear speakers. Teachers today work just as hard, I believe, but don't organise themselves to meet for self-driven professional purposes. As for how much professional discussion goes on in department meetings I don't know enough to say.

Why the difference? In 1949, 1956, 1965 there was little extrinsic motivation to do the job well: pay was poor and few teachers were on anything above the basic pay scale.

One thing the two groups, then and now, have in common is that both would probably agree that the society they live in leaves much to be desired. The difference is that in those post-war decades there was a belief that education could make a serious contribution to making it better; for the teachers at our meeting, teaching English was a social project. I doubt if anyone today believes that an important key to building a better society lies in what teachers do with kids in their classrooms. If teachers today are wanting to do good, and many are, it's by helping individuals to liberate themselves by education from whatever's holding them back from a full and flourishing life.

A second difference might be that in 1956 those teachers believed there was a social group in which hope could be placed, namely that huge number of working-class children -- i.e. the majority of children -- who the system had neglected, except by picking a minority out for sponsorship in the grammar schools. I never hear it said these days that the hope for the future lies in the working class.

Is there a group in which hope might be placed? One that immediately suggests itself is the immigrant population that quite clearly contains large numbers of intelligent and admirable young people. But I don't hear it said that they're the hope either, even though many teachers appreciate their contribution to the schools.

The reason surely is that what's wrong with society today won't be solved by education; the problems are structural, to do with globalisation, corporations and finance. Of course, the problems were structural then, too, in the sense of social class, though people perhaps didn't see that so clearly; they thought education could make a difference, both through new structures (comprehensive schools) and through teaching that induced habits of mutual respect and cooperation, as well as assertiveness and criticality; if the citizenry were imbued with democratic values, things would clearly be better.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Dead metaphors

Mervyn Peake, it seems, drew a set of jokey pictures entitled ‘Figures of Speech’:

A man plays the flute, his feet tapping against the music: this is ‘Toeing the line’. Another stares sorrowfully at what seems to be a puppet at the end of his arm: ‘His right-hand man’. A humanoid sea creature surfaces cheerfully from the water, his arms wrapped around himself: ‘Coming up to scratch’. (Michael Wood, ‘Eaten by Owls’, London Review of Books, 26 January 2012).

Those are funny and clever (though not funny and clever enough for me to decide life’s not too short for reading Peake’s Gormenghast novels -- am I wrong?) and the humour lies, as the titles suggest, in taking figurative language literally. The phrases aren’t similes and I'm not sure they’re metaphors (so your poor English teacher would have no way of dealing with them, those two terms being his or her entire stock-in-trade in this field, leftovers from well over a hundred terms taught in classical rhetoric). But they certainly aren’t meant literally, or not original-literally: ‘coming up to scratch’ has a meaning of its own now, which it goes to directly, as it were, not by way of an image, but if we hold it still and allow ‘scratch’ to register, which we’re not normally supposed to, then the original literal meaning, scratching/scratches etc, emerges. A dead metaphor is revitalised.

I mentioned Donald Davie not long ago.  Davie argues, in Purity of Diction in English Verse (1952), a book I've partly read just recently (only to discover that I’d already made notes on it a few years ago though I can’t remember ever having got it out of the library, let alone opening it -- a now familiar experience), that late 18th century verse, which in his day had the reputation of being thin on figurative language (and thus being arid and lacking in experiential colour), actually has plenty only it’s in the form of revitalised dead metaphors.

Now that I look in Davie again, though, I can’t find an example to quote that’s quite like those of Peake. The most interesting discussion so far has been of the transfer of meanings that you’d expect to be expressed in adverbs qualifying verbs into adjectives that qualify nouns, thus conferring particular energy on the verbs. Thus

Urging at noon the slow boat in the reeds
That wav’d their green uncertainty of shade.
(Langthorne, tha knows.)

‘Here “urging”’, says Davie, ‘naked and conspicuous because “slow” has been removed (at no expense to logic) to qualify “boat”, comes over with all the force of muscular exertion. “Wav’d”, too, profits from being left alone...’ (p32 in Penguin 1992 edition). Well, yes,I think I see....something like a metaphorical process is happening...(?)

In other cases the commonplace dead metaphor isn’t cited explicitly but is in the background to explain the sudden force of a formulation that in effect takes it literally. Or so Davie claims. Thus here (Johnson) the ‘submerged’ metaphor is ‘rebellion broke out’:

The bold Bavarian, in a luckless hour,
Tries the dread summits of Caesarian pow’r,
With unexpected legions bursts away,
And sees defenceless realms receive his sway;

Here the metaphor ‘comes to violent life. “Breaks” becomes “bursts”, and strikes out, naked and powerful, because the unexpectedness of the outbreak has been transferred to the instrument, the legions’ (ibid). Well, I'm not sure that ‘breaks out’ really is so insistently present, submerged, when we read the passage, but something of the sort is going on here giving extra force to ‘bursts’ -- and in any case I appreciate Davie’s singling out of these lines with such illuminating insight (to risk a dead metaphor that if woken up would be an embarrassment) that I don’t care.

Then we have the submerged ‘stock image (corrupt politicians = foxes)’ in Gray:

Owls would have hooted in St Peter’s choir
And foxes stunk and littered in St Paul’s.

‘The metaphor comes to life because the force of it has shifted onto the verbs, those magnificently “foxy” verbs “stunk” and “littered”, both coming straight out of speech’ (p35).

This ended up not ‘illuminating’ Peake at all, but I enjoyed those memorable snatches of verse and the clarity of Davie’s analyses.

The book, of course, that all students of those plodding courses in Applied Linguistics, Discourse Analysis and the like know is Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson, 1980. Owen Barfield, 1947, quoted by Davie, got there much earlier:

‘...figurative expression is found everywhere; its roots descend very deep, as we shall see, into the nature, not only of poetry, but of language itself. If you take away from the stream of European poetry every passage of a metaphorical nature, you would reduce it to a very thin trickle indeed...’ (p27).

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Wuthering Heights in Milford Haven

The recent film of Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold) had the best representation of the Yorkshire moors I've seen. It had a powerful impact on me for the first half or two thirds, for landscape and sound, certainly, but also for characters and story. But I could have done without the rest of the story after Catherine died--the Gothic element I found, as I always do, silly--and I began to be conscious of the film’s innovative techniques as mannerisms -- too many shots at 2 cm range as if seeing something on one’s own cheek, too many scenes opening with crashing wind and rain, great though those were the first few times.

I have had the book since I don’t know when.

A good old Everyman edition.  I thought I remembered reading it but not particularly liking it and I had no intention of reading it again. But I opened it and had a look and found the narrative lively and engaging, so without quite deciding to I ended up re-reading it (if indeed I’d read it before -- my memory now can’t be trusted). And after that I came close to going straight back and reading it yet again, but as that was partly to clear up the confusion left in my mind by the two versions, film and book, I opted to start on something else.

But the cover, I noticed, inside the dust cover looked like this:

And inside the front cover was this:

Margaret Hancock was my mother. Both she and my father went to school in Milford Haven but I’d always known it was to the grammar school. So what was this ‘Intermediate School’? It turns out that well before state (i.e. local authority) grammar schools were created by law in England they’d been legal in Wales, but under the name of intermediate schools, intermediate between elementary (primary) and university or college. The Milford Haven one was renamed a grammar school at some point.

I even found an image of it, from a postcard:

I was surprised how tiny the building was, for the only such school in the town. But I knew that more prosperous families sent their boys, like my mother’s brother, to the grammar school in Haverfordwest, and it wasn’t a rich town, so few would have afforded the fees (my dad, I think, won a scholarship).

Isles of Wonder

That’s to be the theme of the Olympics opening ceremony but it strikes me that very few people in mainland Britain think of themselves on living on ‘isles’ or even, except occasionally, on an island.

How many of us have ever been to any other British isle?

Norman Davies’s big history book is called The Isles and historians sometimes refer to the British Archipelago or, I think I recall, the Western European Archipelago. Both feel odd. The cluster might be more like an archipelago if it weren’t for Ireland since an archipelago suggests a long line of islands -- like Britain and the Orkneys and Shetlands, with all the Scottish islands clearly belonging. I suppose if you think of it as an interrupted northward extension of Normandy and Britanny....

I've been totting up how many of the islands I’ve been to and I think it’s more than most people have. Yes for a start to the other big one, Ireland, though I don’t know it at all well. Otherwise, clockwise: Wight; not Scillies, not Skomer, Skokholm etc, not Lundy; Anglesea but not Man; Arran, Skye, Lewis and Harris, North Uist, South Uist, Barra; no Orkneys or Shetlands; Farne Islands, Lindisfarne. The best trip was sleeping on the deck of a Macbraynes steamer on a warm starry night from Oban to Stornaway. Time I did more of Scotland, the parts I've visited and the parts I haven’t.