Sunday, 19 August 2012

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.

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