Thursday, July 26, 2007
The book’s sections alternate between the early and late 1960s, the latter period in Nigeria, of course, being the Biafran War. And, yes, the characters live through the war, and their lives and their natures, and along with them their country, are transformed by it. Perhaps even their own identity is redrawn, especially once the promise of a recognised nationality is promised and then denied. Eventually there are vivid scenes of the war’s brutality, its double standards, its compromises, its cynicism, its racism and its starvation. The images are graphic and vivid, unforgettable even, and the ability of war to undermine utterly and profoundly any assumption that an individual might harbour about an imagined future is movingly portrayed.
So why then was I so disappointed with the book? All I can offer, I’m afraid, is that eventually I found it shallow. Its apparent concentration on the domestic lives of the characters undermined their credibility as members of an intellectual elite and rendered them two (or perhaps even one) dimensional. Chimanada Ngozi Adichie carefully tells us that Odenigbo is a mathematician and in love with his subject. He covets his personal library, which he loses in the war and then has replaced by a benefactor. But in my experience, mathematicians are passionate people – and are usually passionate about mathematics. No mathematician I have ever met avoids all mention of personal academic interests in social settings as scrupulously as Odenigbo. I didn’t want the novel to become a textbook, but if characters were ballet dancers, surely we would expect to hear of the roles they had danced and the music that had moved them. Of Odenigbo’s academic character we hear nothing. Why is he therefore endowed with knowledge and interest that is never explored? Perhaps he only exists as a character to interact with the twin sisters.
And the problem is repeated with Richard Churchill who, we are told is an Igbo-speaking English radical. I knew a lot of sixties radicals and they were never slow to offer an opinion or, indeed, place themselves squarely in a space on the ideological chessboard. In Half of a Yellow Sun, we never learn if Richard is a Marxist, Maoist, Leninist or Trot. He never mentions Castro or Ho Chi Minh. He doesn’t appear to have any position on capitalism, society, business, the Third World, South Africa, Central America or even Viet Nam. I found myself wondering which sixties decade saw his radicalisation. When Chimanada Ngozi Adichie tells us that he travels to Lagos to attend a function in honour of the state funeral of Winston Churchill (perhaps no relation), I began to wonder if he was an early- (or indeed late) born radical Tory. I have been an expatriate myself, so I can forgive him his attendance of the function, but not his total silence on the issues of the day.
This becomes especially problematic when both Britain and the Soviet Union are mentioned as assisting the Federal Forces in the destruction of secessionist Biafra. What sixties radical, given the inevitability of his assumption of a Cold War bifurcated paradigm to underpin his ideological position, would not have pondered and discussed this at length, even in bed?
Eventually we also have to read along with continued adulation of Ojukwu. His Excellency might even be the Great Helmsman, himself, given that his free-thinking minions seem unable to mention a criticism of an historical character who eventually fled to Ivory Coast to save his skin and live his life in relative comfort after leaving millions of his own people dead. Perhaps he had to be preserved to fight another day, as he eventually did, if in a different way, but surely no sixties radical would have left his role unquestioned. It doesn’t ring true, and an opportunity to develop a character like Richard through his own and inevitable disillusion was ignored.
And then we are presented with a pair of American journalists that the radical Richard has to greet and service in his role as a promoter of the Biafran cause. They are both called Charles and apparently have the same nickname, Chuck – which surely should have been Charlie of the “right” variety to enhance the farce. They are simply not credible. We can probably accept as deadly accurate that the majority of Americans neither knew where Biafra was nor cared a jot about its plight, since the attentions of the politicised were focused elsewhere at the time. But the presentation of a pair of foreign correspondents as crass as these is surely incredible, as is, equally, Richard’s apparent patience in dealing with them.
I did also become mildly annoyed at what became quite extensive use of Igbo words when they seemed to offer no extra flavour, meaning or understanding. I have no problem with the use of local terms to enhance a feeling of place and sound, but their over use tends to obfuscate. We really wanted to know what these people thought, but we were never told.
So what are we left with? Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautifully written, beautifully composed domestic tale of fidelity, infidelity, loyalty and opportunism. The contrast between the characters’ and therefore the nation’s lives at the start and the end of the decade is engaging. But because their psyches are never really explored, we never understand any motives or, therefore, any consequences. Reading Half of a Yellow Sun was a thoroughly enjoyable experience which, with hindsight, I would have foregone.
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Half of a Yellow Sun
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Advice to aspiring writers. A speech at the awards ceremony for the Libros International Children’s Writing Competition. 20 July 2007
One thing I have done since August 1973 is keep a journal. I am told that writers like to call them “commonplace books”. They aren’t diaries.. They’re a cross between a scrapbook and a notebook, like an artist’s sketchbook. You come across something you think is worth recording and you write it down. Sometimes it might be a review of a book or a concert. You might be doing research on some topic and need a place to keep notes. And there might be just stupid things that crop up. Here’s some examples:
A restaurant menu in Greece offers “stuffed corsettes”. And how about this for the importance of proof reading? What a difference one letter can make! A restaurant menu in Chinatown, London, offered – Braised crap with ginger and spring onions and Chicken in spit. More seriously, a proverb in Kikamba that I noted when I lived in Kenya reads: “Nyamu inynugaa kitheka ki ikomie – An animal smells of the forest in which it slept.” The man who taught me the proverb said that it would always apply to me and my memories of Kenya.
And then there’s a section where I describe an old madman who used to hang around in the market place in the town where I lived. One day he cursed me so that I would change into a snake. Ten years later he became chapter five of my book, Mission.
When I lived in Brunei, I was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth when she made a visit there. I have saved all the documents telling me how I should address her, how to bow and how we should not worry because she was good at putting people at ease. Sir Ivan Callan introduced the woman to my right as Jan, saying, “This is Jan. She’s about to set off on the Chay Blythe Round The World Yacht Race”. Mrs Queen immediately said, “You must be mad!”. Sir Ivan smiled and moved on to me. “This is Phil, who organises all the concerts for Brunei Music Society”. “Yuk”, said Mrs Queen and moved on. It’s all recorded in the commonplace book.
The real use of the journal is to support you when you get an idea that needs fleshing out. OK, you have the idea, but then with luck you have hundreds of snippets of information, observations and background that can be woven together to make it more interesting – and it’s all real! It takes time and it’s hard work, but the results are wonderful.
I have read all of the winning and commended entries and I do want to say a very big “Well done” to all of you. I thought the stories were exciting and very well written. Those of you who have a real interest in writing should try to develop it because you are all talented. I do, however, want to offer some advice on how you might develop that talent, and I think that this advice applies to just about all of the entries.
Imagine yourself in a place you don’t know too well, such as someone else’s house, a shop or a restaurant, for instance. You walk past a door that says “PRIVATE” in big letters. Would you go in? I don’t think so.
Now I can understand that most of you have been reading Harry Potter and watching Lord of the Rings and other fantasies. I read Lord of the Rings as a teenager when it was a cult book, like Harry Potter is now. So I can understand when most of you start to write you think in terms of fantasy worlds, elves, goblins, ghosts, gryphons, gorgons, gargoyles and giants. But it’s also worth remembering that you are inventing a private world. A reader comes to your work and finds a door marked PRIVATE. Sometimes, obviously, it works, but a lot of the time readers will not go through that door. It’s private, after all.
I think that the way a really good writer works is to meet you in your own world, your own experience or your own knowledge, and then by suggestion gently takes you somewhere new, introduce you to different ideas and different ways of seeing the world. This doesn’t mean that all writing has to be set in the here and now. No. for instance, from our history lessons we all know something about the First World War, though it is unlikely that any of us in the room experienced it. But as a writer you can set your work in that period because it is common knowledge. Your reader will be with you from the start. A very great English writer, for instance, called Pat Baker has set several of her novels in that period.
So if I have any advice to offer budding young writers it’s this. Try to find your own roots as a writer, as a person and as a creator. Try to relate your ideas to a time and place you know or know something about. And draw the reader into your world by starting on common ground, not in a private world.
And how do you do that? You ROT. R – O – T. Read, Observe, Think.
R is for read. Read, read, read – and when you read something, review it. And say more than just what happens in the book. A student of mine once offered me a review of a book called Ali Goes to Market. His review was, “It’s a book about Ali. He goes to market”. I rejected his review. So read and review and write your thoughts into your journal.
O is for observe. There’s a world out there. We inhabit it. Look at it, describe it. If you come across something of interest, make a note of it and how you felt or how it affected you. In our world, giants don’t change into mice and lizards with red eyes don’t fire laser guns. But millions of other things even more surprising, more interesting and less predictable do happen.
And T is for Think. Take time to think, to reflect on what you experience and, if you think it’s interesting, write it down.
So to conclude, make public worlds and not private ones and ROT in your commonplace book, read, observe and think, and then make your notes. As writers it is our aim to communicate and to do that in a public, not a private place.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
An orchestral concert 14 July 2007, Festival – Nits de la Mediterrania, La Nucia - Twentieth Century Ballets
Having mentioned the setting, it has to be described. The town of La Nucia, just 5 kilometres inland, up the hill behind Benidorm, has been transformed in recent years. I have lived in the town for over four years and have seen an almost complete transformation in that time. It was a beautiful, if quiet place in 2002, when I first visited. Since then a major project of refurbishment and reinvention has been undertaken. Besides a new road, the town now has several shopping complexes, new health centres, libraries, community centres, playgrounds and parks. The most important additions, if, like me, you have a keen interest in the arts, have been the beautiful 600 seat concert hall and, across the road, an outside auditorium that can seat up to 3000. Back at the start of the year the World Youth Orchestra under Josep Vicent inaugurated the Concert hall, l’Auditori de la Mediterrànea, with a concert in which a 110 piece orchestra performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It’s a piece that can be its own parody, if played badly. Now I would claim to know just about every note of the piece and in my humble opinion Josep Vicent’s reading of the score, frankly, was perfect.
And so to the setting. La Nucia is perched on the side of a valley that runs down to the sea from the Sierra Aitana and the mountain, Puig Campaña. On the other side of the valley is Polop, a pretty, floodlit, tumbling Costa Blanca town of pastel shades beneath a hilltop citadel. Beyond, the large town of Callosa d’en Sarrià, the centre of the unique nispero trade, lies illuminated at the base of the Sierra Guadalest. Turning a little to the right, there is the jagged junction between rock and sky that is the summit line of the Sierra Bernia and then, over the now well-known town of Altea, the Mediterranean. Behind the outdoor auditorium’s stage, a row of houses and shops become a backdrop for lighting effects. I hope the residents don’t mind. Frankly, it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place to listen to music, except for the reservation, of course, that the outdoor setting needs amplification, which makes the sound flat. That, I believe, need not be too much of a handicap if the programme is well thought out. And last nights concert triumphed in that respect.
So, initially not expecting much, I took my seat and looked (as best I could in the dark) at the works on offer. Sandwiched between two of Alberto Ginastera’s dances for the Estancia Dances Op8 (1941), we were to be offered Stravinsky’s Firebird, Tres movimientos tanguisticos porteños by Astor Piazzolla and a complete Al Amor Brujo of Manuel de Falla. If the prospect on reading the list of works watered the mouth, the reality simply stunned.
Ginastera’s Danza del Trigo (Dance of the Wheat) rushed and raced to evoke effects of wind gusts on a wheat field. Rhythms and keys are crossed and the music speeds along without actually being fast! I recall an article by Colin Matthews some years ago about how to write music that sounds very fast while in fact changing very slowly.
The Stravinsky, of course, is utterly well known, and like the other two ballets in what most of us regard as his early romantic trilogy, it can become a cliché. But not in the hands of Josep Vicent, who has a complete understanding of the composer’s music. It was superbly played, never rushed, but never allowed to rest.
What followed was a different universe. Astor Piazzolla is known as a composer of tangos, which, for some reason tend to be associated with the lightweight. Josep Vincent, in his introduction to the piece, Tres movimientos tanguisticos porteños, was at pains to tell us that Piazzolla was a “classical” composer who studied with Nadia Boulanger. Yes, true, and he also studied with Ginastera and others, declaring, himself, that he had developed a profound love of Bach. The reference is apposite, since the last of these three tangos turned out to be a complex fugue! I know a number of the composer’s works very well, having heard Joachim Palomares’s ensemble on several occasions and having played the Barenboim disc regularly. But these pieces were as hard as nails. Rhythmically they were tangos, but if you think that Stravinsky’s music might be associated with toughness (which I don’t) you should try these three orchestral pieces by Astor Piazzolla. As ever, Piazzolla uses minor keys, sometimes rather confused minor keys as well. The gloom would be unremitting were it not for his utterly inventive use of form. Throughout, however, there was that little trilling turn that is his musical signature. Surely he was one of the twentieth century’s most original musical voices.
The only work on the programme by a Spanish composer was next, a full account of El Amor Brujo of Manuel de Falla. Written in 1915, the score blends elements of Flamenco from the composer’s native Andalusia with “classical” forms. Scored for medium-sized orchestra and voice, it was performed last night by Mayte Martin, who specialises in flamenco-style singing and she was quite excellent. Necessarily under-stated because of the nature of the piece, her singing added a sonority to the overall sound that transformed the whole piece into something unique. The extremely famous Ritual Fire Dance at the core of the work raised its own round of applause, despite being offered in an intriguingly controlled way in Josep Vicent’s reading. It worked, since the restraint prevented the section dominating the work and thereby held our attention more for the vocal sections.
And then to finish the evening was a real bit of summer night out. Malambo, another of the Ginastera Opus 8 dances, closed the show. Now I will freely admit that when I am in a concert of any type an invitation that we might “put our hands together” and clap along with the music usually leaves me feeling empty and, often, not a little resentful, because it usually indicates a concert that is so poorly presented by the performers that they have to do something cheap to drum up support. But when the conductor turned to the audience, a few phrases into Malambo and indicated participation, frankly, it was impossible not to comply. The piece is utterly infectious. The whole audience joined in – AND the whole audience was utterly attentive, able to react immediately when the conductor turned to quell the clapping with a wave of the hand to allow a detailed variation in the music to come through, and then start again as requested as the main rhythm returned. Five works in the concert, three of which I had not heard before, faultless playing by the World Youth Orchestra and, as ever, the highest possible standards of interpretation under the direction of Josep Vicent …. Quite beautiful.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Arthur Conan Doyle (later Sir Arthur) is born in Edinburgh, completes medical school and generally accomplishes whatever task he sets himself, including becoming a world famous writer. Despite the fact that he kills off his creation, the detective Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly to devote time to tasks of greater gravity, popular demand insists that he raise the character from the dead. He does this and proceeds to generate even greater success than before. He marries happily twice and pursues and interest in spiritualism, amongst other good causes.
Perhaps because of who they are, the Edalji family become the butt of the campaign of poison pen letters. When they complain, all they accomplish is the focusing of further unwanted attentions on themselves. When a series of ripping attacks on animals remains unsolved, George, somehow, becomes the prime suspect. Convinced of his villainy, police, judicial system, expert witnesses, jury and press see him convicted of the crime and sent down for seven years. Good conduct sees him released after three.
Sir Arthur wishes to do good and takes up George Edalji’s case. He researches the facts, analyses the possibilities, tracks down neighbours and officials who have been involved. He creates an alternative explanation of events and presents it to officialdom, seeking a pardon and compensation for George, who by this time has transferred to London to start a new life. The two men meet and the incongruity of their assumed expectations of life are as irreconcilable as they are irrelevant to their joint focus on George’s case. After official review, however, the Home Office Committee eventually concludes in an ambiguous manner. Edalji was convicted of the crime and the conviction is declared unsound; but crucially he is not declared innocent. He is therefore found not guilty but then not innocent either and so not worthy of compensation. When, years later, Sir Arthur dies and his associates stage a spiritualist gathering in his honour in the Royal Albert Hall, George is invited and attends, complete with binoculars lest he miss a detail of the proceedings. The illusion of the event draws him in and at one stage he feels himself to be the centre of attention, only to find that it is a near miss. Most of the detail refers to himself and his father, but the reality then points to another who is immediately identified.
But, paradoxically, the quiet George Edalji and his Parsee (not Hindoo) father, Shapurji, were always the centre of attention simply by being who they were. Even Sir Arthur, the son’s eventual champion, states this in one of his letters when he writes that it was perhaps inevitable that a dark-skinned clergyman taking a station in central England would attracts other’s attention of a kind that would seek to undermine him, vilify him and attempt to oust him. The message is clear, that to be different from an assumed norm is to invite hatred, envy, discrimination and eventually ignominy. It is presented as a universal assumption, an unwritten element of universal common sense. Thus, as an intruder, the usual rules of justice will never pertain, a reality alluded to late in the book when George, scanning the Albert Memorial with his binoculars, discovers a statuesque embodiment of the concept of justice that is not wearing a blindfold.
What is eventually so disturbing about Arthur and George, however, is the realisation that both characters are outsiders. George is set apart from his Staffordshire peers by his skin colour and perceived race. Arthur, however, lives no humdrum life. He attends private schools, qualifies as a doctor and then becomes an international celebrity by virtue of his writing. He takes up minority causes and identifies with them but, despite his obvious separateness from mainstream society, in his case his position is never interpreted as a threat or a handicap, obviously because the separateness of privilege has a different currency from the separateness of even relative poverty.
Now an enduring memory of my own school history lessons was a textbook reproduction of a mid-Victorian cartoon of the universal pyramid of creation. It had God at the apex, immediately in touch via the saints with the Empress of India and then, layered beneath in widening courses were the gentry and aristocracy, the members of government and civil service, the professional classes and merchants. The working classes could perhaps temporarily ignore their poverty in the solace offered by knowing that they are a cut above members of all other races who, themselves, were just one up from the apes. It was not many more layers down to the low animals, most of which slithered or crawled. Arthur and George ostensibly tells us much about racism and racial discrimination in a society that was portrayed as the apex of a worldwide empire, a heavenly focus for aspiration. It also tells us about the power of presumption and has much to say very quietly and by suggestion about social class and its ability, especially in Britain, to legitimise difference as originality or eccentricity in some areas, differences which elsewhere would be threats.
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Arthur and George
Friday, July 13, 2007
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Mission, by Philip Spires, offers an armchair exploration of the locals and foreign workers in a poor village in Kenya. Through their stories, we get to know their hopes and aspirations, their dilemmas, the circumstances that force them to act the way they do and, ultimately, their humanity. The book begins with a car accident in which the village drunk, a character nobody liked much, got killed. However, the day of the accident proves to be fateful for the major characters of the book. Like Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon, each of the major characters – a Catholic priest who cares more about the welfare of the people in this life than for their souls in the next life, an earnest young Kenyan who wants to become a Catholic priest, a couple of local entrepreneurs who cleverly exploit the business and political opportunities in Kenya just after it gained independence etc – tells their hopes and ambitions, their circumstances and their dilemmas. The car accident at the beginning of the book turns out to be the denouement for the major characters.
The book is only published recently but has been incubated by Philip over many years while he spent time in Kenya, London, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates. While his portrayal of Kenya and London is quite vivid, we also recognise the basic humanity of the characters in the book. It is comforting to know that while we face different circumstances, we are basically the same round the world. This is a message we need to remind ourselves constantly as tribal and sectarian conflicts exploded in recent years.
Review by Cao Thac,
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Just occasionally – in fact pretty rarely these days – something utterly surprising emerges from an evening in a concert hall. Almost forty years into an interest in music which has focused on every style of western music from Gothic to minimalism (perhaps not such a great leap!), real surprises are now quite rare and often come about on hearing a work by a young composer, someone just starting to seek a voice. But Xavier Montsalvatge died aged ninety in 2002 after a lifetime longer than most as an active composer, but few outside his native Catalunya were then familiar with his music. Since moving to Spain I have actively sought programmes that featured his increasingly popular output and have been impressed with the eclecticism of his style, usually neo-classical, but often laced with popular tunes, folk song and jazz, and sometimes even giving more than a hint of Bartokian toughness. But nothing from the piano works and pieces for strings I have heard up to now could have prepared me for the experience that was Montsalvatge’s opera, El Gato con Botas, Puss in Boots.
Obviously an opera for children and with a text by Charles Perrault which faithfully follows the familiar pantomime version of the tale, we know from the first rhythmic string figures, with their shifting harmonies and ambiguous keys, that we are to experience a work which exists simultaneously on different levels, similar in some ways to Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, but lighter in its touch, a Miro to Janacek’s Dadd.
The work lasts just an hour and has five scenes. In the first our Puss is lazing on a cushion in front of the television, occasionally offering her skin-tight costume with its hanging baubles in languorous lines to the audience. The children were captivated from first to last, mesmerised by this wonderful engaging character, elegantly and excitingly portrayed and sung by Marisa Martins. Older members of the audience might have had other things in mind, such is the nature of pantomime. It is in this first scene that her new sequinned, high heeled and pointed boots are presented, along with a cloak to emphasise her pinkness. The king and princess lament the state of the kingdom. Apparently it’s a boring life when there are no wars or civil strife. Neither are there husbands, it seems. Puss with boots appears and is hired. The miller, a suitor for the king’s daughter, strips to his shorts and takes a swim in the river and immediately gets into difficulty. Puss summons her trusty white rabbits who, until now have balletically moved props and rearranged the kindergarten’s alphabetic furniture. They don snorkels and goggles and rescue the lad. The king is overjoyed and the princess’s eyes are seen to bulge a little. And then the ogre appears to rough things up a bit. In his lair, he laments the fact that the high life might have rendered his nose the colour of an aubergine. Puss sorts everything out, of course, whimsically avoiding the lion into which he transforms himself, then wooing the canary which is his next trick and finally, of course, dealing (offstage) with the radio-controlled orange mouse which was the form she requested him to take. Are all ogres that stupid? Anyway there’s a wedding and clearly all live happily ever after, including Puss who gets her television back.
So that’s the story. It’s pantomime, but it is superbly done and it’s filled with wonderful imagery. Marisa Martins as the Puss is quite outstanding in the role. She has a dancer’s use of the body alongside coquettish expressions and interpretive gestures which seem to draw the music rather than follow it. And she also has that unmistakable talent to sing beautifully and act apparently effortlessly at the same time. Enric Martinez-Castignani as the king gives an excellent portrayal of a bumbling idiot whose deafness perhaps hides his wisdom. Miguel Zapater as the ogre is outstanding. He becomes a real pantomime character who admits he has had a few too many glasses of wine. Maria Luz Matrinez as the princess carries off the apparent naiveté of the character with aplomb and her voice shines in a role that has to bear the sledgehammer imagery of a wedding dress of pure white hung with bright red balls. How’s that for subtlety! And if David Menendez had stripped down to his swimming trunks to take his dip in the river in an older-style opera house, no doubt a section of the audience would have called for a diversion of the glasses otherwise permanently trained on Pussy’s pinkness. His playing of the role was a superb blend of clown and suitor and his singing was excellent.
But underpinning all of this was the music, which was brilliantly expressive, a deceptively simple yet eclectic mix of recitative, full orchestra and inventive ensembles. The trombone and tuba figures that accompanied the ogre were a touch of genius. The recitatives were superbly cast as not quite Mozartian, whilst the neo-classicism was always delving into interesting harmonic shifts. And there was always the hint of a cat’s paw flick in the strings to allow Puss to draw us all in with that playful flick of the hand and wrist. In the pit the World Youth Orchestra played flawlessly and Josep Vincent, who is surely one of the brightest and most accomplished of young conductors, is surely destined for global recognition.
This was music and performance of the very highest standard – and all happening in this increasingly sophisticated little town of La Nucia, just outside Benidorm. What a wonderful place to live!
One aspect of my research was to identify whether there were aspects of the education system, itself, that led to these results. I focussed on the private nature of most Philippine education, an aspect which became more important during the last quarter of the twentieth century when, as a result of structural adjustment programmes, there was a shortage of public investment in education. In the Philippines, therefore, there is effectively a market in education.
What I concluded was that the Philippine elite competes from within its own ranks for access to the high value end of this market, thus excluding poorer Filipinos from participation in that part of the sector which appears to offer educational quality. The intra-elite competition has effectively become the education system’s function and focus, so access to quality education is denied to the vast majority of the population. My findings also suggested that the continued use of market forces in education accentuates and exacerbates this effect, thus further precluding social mobility.
The Philippines is thus a country where it matters where you were educated, where there is an identifiable queue of graduates of education, with the elite associated with particular institutions and geographical areas.
The British appear to be proud of the “high standards” set by the elite sector of their education system, hence we can still have a debate about the potential of grammar schools to promote social mobility, despite the fact that if implemented they would exclude three quarters of the population. In addition, it is clear that access to quality education at all levels in Britain is determined by a market in house prices, a market in which where the elite sector competes within its own ranks for access to quality, thus driving the market. It is not exactly the same as the privatised Philippine education system, but it would appear to work the same way. Today’s finding on social mobility cannot therefore be surprising.
This is not a review of Losing Nelson or England, England, or a record of visits to Chester. As the title claims, it’s a reflection, a few observations on culture and identity seen through Englishness. The trips to Chester are offered by the way, as a start and a finish.
I don’t recall the year when my dad’s Electricity Board Sports Club decided on Chester as its destination for the kids’ outing. I do remember many of those annual events vividly, however, perhaps because of the unearthly hour at which we had to set off. Britain had no motorways then and dual carriageways were rare. Roads went through town centres, the concept of the by-pass having just reached the drawing board – at least in the north – and adults could still smoke on the bus, despite the fact that potted meat sandwiches were probably being consumed in the next seat. The sandwich filling has a bearing on the tale, since the price of the trip included a packed lunch, usually passed around in bulk, the sandwiches cut in triangles, not the rectangles of home, and set in Toblerone ranges on a teacloth-draped tray. There was an apple or an orange, perhaps, to finish. I don’t know why I didn’t like potted meat, but I can remember persuading my mother to do me a round of bacon sandwiches as an adjunct to the standard fare. Perhaps I was just being greedy, but they did come in handy, if in a rather unexpected way.
I can remember visiting Chester’s historic town centre, all those half-timbered buildings provoking discussions about the Tudors, who they were, how they fit into history, who came before and who followed. The predecessors interested all of us on the trip, because we were from Yorkshire and we could never accept that the Lancastrians had won the war. At least we were in Cheshire! And then there were the city’s Roman origins to consider, leading to my learning my first Latin word when we were told that Chester was but a corruption of “castra”, Latin for camp (the military variety).
And so to the zoo. Yes, there were real zoos in those days. I was a fan of Zoo Time on TV, where Dr Desmond Morris, before his higher primate fame, did live experiments with chimpanzees and rewards, all encased in a Prokofiev theme tune. At Chester I remember I liked the sea lions, found the camels oppressively smelly and learnt that elephants really like cold bacon sandwiches.
When an infant, I used to wiggle the ridges off my candlewick bedspread. I don’t know whether it was a search for solace in the tactile, but it used to exasperate my mother, because I used to pick things into holes. Charles Cleasby, the Horatio Nelson worshipping main character of Barry Unsworth’s Losing Nelson, often sleeps under a holed and worn blanket of his mother’s whenever he needs reassurance. It’s a covering of peace for him, a way of shutting out the complications of the world and operates physically in the same way that his need to wrap himself in the myth of Nelson protects him mentally. Thus he is perhaps more a worshipper than a scholar. But the myth has become part of his psyche, part of his identity. Nelson’s greatness, Nelson’s genius, are parts of the nation’s greatness and genius and thus, by association, part of Cleasby’s own moral and personal identity. But, wanting to find out more, Cleasby researches Nelson’s history, expecting to confirm greatness and therefore bolster myth. To his increasing dismay and reluctantly admitted disbelief, what he uncovers are the complications of history, the messy realities of war and the personal limitations of the historical figure, who is often revealed as less than competent, certainly less than diplomatic, but also, and more importantly, as a self-seeking, ruthless individual, certainly not a team player. The myth dissolves little by little and so does Charles Cleasby’s hold on reality. As Nelson loses his mythical status, Cleasby’s world simply falls apart. He is no longer able to interpret experience nor relate to his surroundings. The blanket cocoon offered by myth generates an intellectual and mental solace that can both justify and reinforce identity and, once the protecting wrap has been holed for Charles, at least and perhaps for a nation, it is identity itself that is challenged. Losing Nelson is a serious and moving study of the essential role of myth in defining identity and creating psyche, citing its power and its limitations, these derived from its essence of simply being myth.
In England, England, Julian Barnes inhabits similar territory, but humorously. One character lists quintessences (there are more than five) of Englishness and many, perhaps most, are myth, by nature or association. And the purpose of identifying these icons of Englishness is to facilitate the construction, by Sir Jack Pitman on an eventually independent Isle of Wight, of an England Theme Park, packed with imitation and reproduction experience, collected together to take the strain out of tourism. Theme Park England becomes, itself, the quintessence (just one) of corporate identity and presence, with the products on offer being seen and marketed as “better” than the originals. It’s all a great success until, that is, the imitations begin to adopt their assigned identities. Smugglers become a problem when they start smuggling. Dr. Samuel Johnson changes his name to – guess what? – Dr. Samuel Johnson and begins emulating the behaviour of the historical figure, along with a few of his own improvisations for added effect. The King thinks he’s a king and Robin Hood and his Merrie Men yearn to be real outlaws. They are all in breach of contract. Through humour, the book asks questions about what is essential in national personal identity. The project identifies myths and reproduces them as second order experience which themselves become as capable of fulfilling the role of identity creation, definition and perpetuation as the real thing. So, by extension, the book questions how we create, assume and sustain cultures and their associated values.
The existence of myth and its potential to influence identity and culture are highly relevant to my second day out in Chester. This time as an adult I revisited the half timbering and Roman roots, the zoo having been transformed by changed notions of the animal. And a new reality asserted itself, redrafting the assumed permanence of my childhood memories. Unbeknown to the child, the half-timbering is largely nineteenth century reproduction and imitation. If it prompts discussion on Tudor England, it does so only by assumed association learned elsewhere. And the extant Roman elements of Chester are miniscule, reduced to a few piles of stone. The town’s official guide book, which I bought to help interpret the visit, pictured a Roman Centurion on its cover. He carried a shield with the words “Tetley Bitterman” emblazoned where one might have expected “SPQR”. At the end of the visit a myth I hade grown up with had been largely exploded. The history, itself, is not the myth. It’s the evidence that’s claimed on its behalf that is the problem. No wonder Sir Jack’s Theme Park attractions were as good as the real thing when the original was originally a theme park. The myth may survive the reality, I suppose, if the individual still wants to believe it. And, by the way, I have never managed to ask elephants if they really do like cold bacon sandwiches.
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For about 34 years I have kept a commonplace book. It’s not a diary, not a place to record mundane reactions to the prosaic, but a kind of mental scrapbook where raw snippets of interest are jotted to be, perhaps, reworked later. When I was asked to contribute to the school’s history, I thought I would have a rich vein to mine.
I spent 11 years in the school, starting in 1976. I taught maths and computer studies, as it was then called. I was the rogue who drilled through the walls of the school one summer holiday to install a kilometre of coaxial cable to network the whole building at a time when IT teachers coveted their empires. Jack Cates, the school keeper, turned a blind eye or two as each day I arrived brandishing an 18-inch drill bit. And so we had a computer network based in the library, but linked to several other classrooms. My efforts were undermined by a talented student who wrote a BASIC program that mimicked the 480Z start-up screen and then issued witty but bogus error messages when you tried to log on. It fooled all of us for weeks.
But back to my archive. What was amazing was to realise that over the 11 years I worked there, the school appeared in my notes only half a dozen times. A student asked what Ethiopia had to do with Hitler because he had heard people say, “Heill Isolase!” I was reading Bertrand Russell one day when a student asked me what it was. I read him a short passage and his answer was, “Is that in English, sir?” The fire, which removed the roof of the old building and sent the maths department into a wandering exile for a year, happened during a half term holiday late in 1982. And then there was the whole school re-discovery week-end with Rod Usher and Douglas Hamblin. I’m sure it did some good.
But it’s not the events that count; it’s the people. I have not lived in Britain for 15 years and not worked in Balham for 20. And yet, on a recent visit, I met one of my personal tutees in a building society queue. One of my A level maths students was sitting in an Indian take-away when I went for my chana aloo and chapati. And another tutee was on the tills in the supermarket. The last of these was still as small and slight as she was at thirteen, but she reminded me that she is in her forties now.
But two characters in particular stir memories, Richard Simmons and Kathleen Collyer. The latter, always known as Mrs. Collyer, was the lady who did the staff refreshments. She used to line up the rolls – soft or hard, ham or cheese – on ranks of pale green plates on the staffroom bar. The hot water urn had to be filled and turned on at precisely 9:30 each morning. Failure to do so would receive Mrs. Collyer’s continued recrimination for about a month after her arrival at 10. So important was this “switching on” task that a member of the staff association committee was assigned each term with the job of checking that it had been done. Woe betide a slacker! A levels to invigilate? Half a mo, I have to dash and switch on the urn first.
Mrs. Collyer’s hard rolls were inedible unless you flattened them, an act which would cause most of the upper crust to disintegrate into a pale brown snowstorm of flakes, with an associated, if dull crunch. Fred Morley’s dog, which always accompanied him wherever he went, including into class, used to lick them off the carpet whilst his master waited for his tea. And Mrs. Collyer also greeted everyone by name, often wrongly, as they ordered, so we had staff members called Tingly, Hildebrick, Car, Candy and one day, I swear it, we had a Mr. Gonad.
And then came the frightful day of “the decision”. I can still remember the sense of trepidation that suffused through the members of the staff association when the words, “Action: Ask Mrs. Collyer if we can have salad in the rolls” were written into the minutes. Who would undertake such a mission? And would they survive? Well, we got the salad, but it took Mrs. Collyer years to get used to the idea. Her words, “Oh, so they want salad in their rolls now” became a catch phrase amongst the staff and was employed to refer to any obviously impossible task, of which in our school there were always many, or so it seemed. But she was always there and she always delivered.
And so to Richard Simmons, the Media Resources Officer whose centrally-located den was very much the hub of the school. He was a “guaranteed-to-break-the-ice-at-parties” “can-do” scuba-diving jazz musician who kept spirits up with his manner and wit. But one day his enthusiasm got the better of him and he accepted a bet that he could and would jump off the back of the Thames pleasure boat that the staff association had rented for the end of term do. Yes, he did it. The police were called. The pleasure boat did boring circles for an hour looking for him. The police launch ran aground off Barnes Reach and had to be towed off the bank. Frank Thorn, marooned on board, was embarrassed beyond recall and didn’t speak to any of the staff association committee for months.
But what happened to Richard? Well, he swam ashore and, resplendent in only socks and underpants, padded up the mud to a landfall in Hammersmith. It was a fair way back to Balham, where he had left the car and where, if lucky, he might be reunited with his clothes. In such a predicament, in socks and underpants, wet though and covered in mud, what might one do in Hammersmith, or Putney, for that matter, to avoid unwanted attention or even arrest? Answer – jog. Naked, wet and dirty? Just jog and the world will ignore you. Again Richard was ever present and gave his all to the school.
And I have hardly mentioned the students, the thousands of them that passed by in those eleven years. But I remember many of them clearly and when I meet them along Balham High Road I can still put a name to a face. I hope, as I do so, that I have contributed just a little, as an educator, to their well being, their memories, their jogging, their salad.
Author of “Mission”