Burning the heather

I’m at the Doctor’s surgery. It’s full. Monday morning full.

I’m not here for myself, though. I’m here with my youngest who has a raging temperature, a rash, and most worryingly, is periodically struggling to breathe properly. He needs an inhaler to help him. He needs something stronger than Calpol to bring his temperature down, and I need to know he’s OK.

He rocks gently to and fro on his chair. A much older man is seated to my right. He too sounds like he needs help with his breathing: he rasps noisily and I repeatedly suppress the urge to cough on his behalf. Sat in the order that we are we look like a living, breathing, aching, wheezing timeline. Stuck as I am I the middle, I can’t help but think to myself that I’m not as young as I once was, nor as old as I could be. I’m immediately embarrassed by the banality of what I’m thinking.

Perhaps it’s all the fault of the Pet Shop Boys that I’m being overly reflective. They have a new album out in January and, by the sound of their newly released track ‘Burning the heather’ they could well be back to their lyrically mature and sombre best. Suede’s Bernard Butler plays guitar and Stuart Price’s production is subtle, almost muted. It’s certainly lacks the banging quality of the last two albums, which if I’m honest, is no bad thing. I’ve always wallowed in the beautifully engineered tracks of 1990’s Behaviour, while 2012’s Elysium saw me stop more than once while driving to cry with the sheer unbearable weight of grief.

My life isn’t shot through with the pain of loss anymore. I’ve accepted the fact that ‘autumn is here and time’s moving along’. I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help. The persona in the coda of the song finds that he’ll ‘consider staying’. I’m glad that I did too.

Beyond PEE

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

King Lear’s plea is, perhaps, one of the most fundamental in all literature.

It’s also a deeply personal question for there is no mistaking that he is referencing himself; this is not a question about what it means to be human, but a question about the Lear-ness of Lear. We read for similar reasons: to find the us-ness of ourselves. We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.

Of course, all literature has, ultimately, the aim of moving us, of subtly shifting our positions towards both the material we read and our own identities as we engage with the text. This is often at odds with the teaching of GCSE English Literature which often strives for an answer. In many cases teaching and learning is still indebted to the largely mechanical PEE paragraph or some other such framework. The issue that I have with this is that it fails to capture the struggle, the grasping for meaning, the essence of reading literature which (with regards to GCSE at least) is the quest for critical exploration. When viewed in this light, some of the most fundamental philosophical questions cannot be consistently reduced to point/evidence/explain. The clunky and static nature of responses framed in this way both denies students the exploratory joy of engaging with literature and precludes their access to higher grades.

I remember the birth of the PEE paragraph well. As a participant in a New Labour initiative called ‘Excellence in Cities’ back in the very early noughties, my department had no choice other than to follow the highly prescriptive National Literacy Strategy. This dictated both materials (anyone remember My Father was a Polar Bear?) and pedagogical approaches. The simplest of these such as the starter, plenary, the four part lesson, and of course, the PEE paragraph have stuck around not because of any tangible usefulness, but largely as testimony to just how conservative the profession can be. With a shiny white and yellow folder, and a new inspection regime to go alongside it, it’s clear that the teaching of English was happy to be told who it was, and literary exploration became something to be framed, to be somehow made to fit the needs of politicians, inspectors, and consultants.

The way beyond this is to remember three simple questions that should be asked endlessly of students:

What is the writer telling us about the character? (Or the setting? Or the theme?)

How is the writer using language to do this? (Or using structure? Or using form?)

Why is the writer doing this?

This approach will nearly always liberate the students from the unhelpful (and completely reductive) burden of attempting to make their thoughts about a work of art fit a redundant framework conceived in Whitehall in the late 1990s.

Writers create character and settings. The ways those characters and settings interact will reveal some underlying (or maybe explicit) theme. Those writers use language to do so, and exploring this will enable students to negotiate the text as literature. They can start with any of the questions. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the quality of thought about the text will almost immediately improve once the trap of the three part answer has been taken away. The questions also encourage students to have a series of thoughts, some of which may be in conflict with each other. This is the Holy Grail of literature teaching: students who can see the shades, students who can express the maybe, students who are comfortable with their own doubts about what they have read.

Remember, the PEE paragraph was born in a particular political context: that of the sound bite, that in which political communication strategy became a thing, and a time in which confidence in a young political movement was high. It’s no surprise that the three-part point/evidence/explain caught on so well, particularly when it could all be wrapped up so neatly in a paragraph.

Tony Blair may well have campaigned on Education, Education, Education. It still seems seductive. Resist. Teaching literature is both more complicated and much simpler than that.

Candy floss of outrage

Today, in possibly the one of the most sycophantic interviews I’ve ever listened to, Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed my (and possibly your) anger at the suspension of Parliament as ‘a candy floss of outrage’. Whatever that means.

What cannot be in doubt is the way in which Parliament and democracy is being trampled over in order to, ultimately, serve the needs of the few. Nobody can even pretend that this is anything other than a coup.

But, hey ho, it’s not anger that I’m feeling. It’s a candy floss of outrage… for Rees-Mogg has decreed it so. You get the feeling that he’s used to it.

It’s not so much that we are living in a post-truth, Trump world, but rather that we are living in a nightmare where the very relationship between language and the things to which our words refer is broken constantly by the far right. How else would terminally ill people be sent for work assessments? How else to explain that Trump can barely speak or Johnson’s use of English is vacuously inflated. The relationship between their language and the stuff that it refers to is twisted, perverted, subverted, and vandalised. Therefore, it’s not anger I’m feeling that my democratically elected MP will have a reduced (or almost non-existent) period of time to subject any preparations being made for Brexit to any parliamentary scrutiny – it’s a candy floss of outrage. Rees-Mogg has decreed it thus.

Of course, they get away with it because that’s the environment they have been born into. Has anyone ever told them to shut up, stop talking, and come back when they have meaningful sentence to utter? No. Not ever. 

And therein lies the secret of their popularist appeal: they keep on talking. It doesn’t matter that their words don’t refer to the truth (£350 million, anyone) because the popularist position is not to care about language, it’s to care about power. Example: did Johnson care about language when he referred to spending money on historical child abuse investigations as ‘spaffing it up the wall’? Clearly, no. Worse, not only did he not care, he verbalised contempt for the vulnerable in a classic popularist linguistic power grab. It’s anything goes, take me as I am, I tell it as it is, that’s just me init, ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ (oops, Johnson didn’t say that, it was Trump).  You get me?

If you’re not angered by the smash and grab raid on our democracy, so be it. It’s not for me and my words to persuade you. You’ll be fine when they come for whatever you value – it’s all candy floss init.

Pure shores

Predictably enough, I read Alex Garland’s novel The Beach in Greece some 22 years ago. When Danny Boyle’s adaptation hit the screens any excitement I had at watching it soon disappeared that wet Sunday afternoon in Bolton. Even Virginie Ledoyen couldn’t really warm it up. Where the novel sweltered its way towards the secret mythical beach, the film seemed stilted and contrived.

The soundtrack is a different matter. It’s an eclectic mix of early naughties: from Moby to Blur via Richard Ashcroft. Brian Eno and Angelo Badalamenti feature along the way. The highlight is All Saints’ track ‘Pure Shores’. With William Orbit arranging the vocals, the harmonies journey through deserts and along shores ‘to a place I can call mine’. Lovely.

A constant theme of pop music is the escaping from an urban environment. ‘Pure Shores’ reminds us that when pop does it well, we travel through sonic landscapes as moving as their physical counterparts.

Falling upwards

A colleague once told me: if you are going to fall, fall upwards.

I like my philosophy on the practical side, particularly at seven in the morning. She went onto explain that it’s through falling that we can grow, get better, live a more fulfilling second half of life.

We will all fall. Sometimes through our own mistakes and stupidity, sometimes through our inattention and neglect, and sometimes because someone or something has taken a sledgehammer to everything we hold dear.

Falling upwards is terrible advice. To suggest that we can instantly turn disadvantage to our favour just will not work. It’s a bit like telling someone to cheer up. It’s a lazy and inadequate response to distress. But, and here’s the thing, falling upwards is not advice; my colleague wasn’t giving me any. It’s more of a perspective that we can, over time, gradually inch towards. She was simply pointing this out. There is no joy without profound sadness, and the human condition is to know and accept both. We can’t rise without knowing what it is to fall.

After lunch I take a snap of a boat that has fallen; it’s simply been left. I can’t help thinking that the view is, somehow, all the better for it being there in all of its sunken glory.

What remains

It’s hot.

Southern Greece in the middle of August hot. The pool is quiet, the crickets are loud, the children are playing. It’s a good day.

It’s a good week. Earlier I wrote about clearing stuff out. The physical stuff is relatively easy to deal with, at least for me as I have few attachments to things.

The harder things to deal with are the patterns of thought that we’ve outgrown. How to rid ourselves of those and what does what remains reveal?

The heat is making me think about running a bit later today. It’s going to be a physically tough one. I can fit it in though. Family will be showering; I’ll run down the hill from where we are staying and find a taverna to eat at later. I’ll be back before they’ve finished getting ready. It works.

What doesn’t work for me is the lousy tactic that I’ve always defaulted to with my running: find a race, set a target, make a plan. I end up obsessing over the end point rather than getting stuck into the mile in front of me. It’s a pressure that I don’t need, don’t respond to, don’t enjoy. Like the physical stuff, it’s time to let it all go. I’ve learned to keep my mind in the day, in the moment. Projecting into an imaginary future served me badly and I’ve had to learn that lesson very consciously. I’m annoyed that it’s taken me so long to learn that, likewise, this is all I need to do with my running: run the mile I’m in.

Most of us know that the marathon originated in Greece. I’ve got one on the horizon: the Chester Marathon in October. Strava tells me that If I run today, and I will, then I’ll have run for 14 consecutive days. All I need to do is keep it up and not worry about times, paces, imaginary finish lines. That’s what remains.

And besides, it’s too hot to obsess.

Oliver Twist

Last year I read Oliver Twist for the third time. It’s odd how a novel that you think you understand can turn on you and quietly insist that it is not really what you thought it was about.

Perhaps it was because I was using lots of extracts from it with a particularly interested Year 9 group. We pored over the beginning of chapter five with a keen eye for the gothic, noticing that state of mind that Dickens exploits so well in the novel: somewhere between dreaming and waking. He uses the same device elsewhere and it starts to lend the novel a nightmarish quality that has never been captured beyond the page. I’ve never seen an adaptation that is able to convey what Dickens does so well in his first novel proper: that existence for some of Victorian England’s most vulnerable was a literal nightmare. Yet Dickens is able to take this trope, and through his ironic narrative detachment (which, ironically, means that the reader can almost touch his passionate defence of the poor), he is able to propose a space in which little Oliver is both dead to the world, and at the same time very much suffering. As he sleeps in an undertaker’s shop:

‘he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep’

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

I think they understood.