Tuesday, March 30, 2010

English Literature

My favourite school subject. The only one I would have been sorry to have missed. 

Thank you Mr Buckle.

Mr Buckle took an innovative approach to Wilfred Owen and Macbeth, which were our syllabus.

We went to see productions of Macbeth:

One by professionals at the Crucible theatre, set in post-holocaust Sheffield with everyone dressed in sheepskins and carrying spears. At one point one of the wooferoonies whirled his spear so violently that the end flew off and landed in the audience. Some of us (not me) started heckling. I was ashamed. Mr Buckle said not to be, since the performance was so bad that if he'd been there in a private capacity he'd be heckling too.

I once started a fight in one of Mr Buckle's lessons. Over the question of whether it was morally acceptable to kill mayflies with rulers during English lessons. I was anti-. My father was called into the school over this. I'd always thought of my father as a deeply conformist man, but he let me know, without ever saying it, that he thought that my cause was worthy and that he was proud of me for standing up for life against cruelty.

One of the things I learned from Mr Buckle was that it's alright to ignore authority.

Another was that it's alright for an educated man to like EastEnders. Not that I actually do, but he gave me the freedom to like that sort of thing if I wanted. I do like Beyoncé and Britney Spears, which is the same, only more shameful.

Another production was by a rather more amateur group who came to our school (I assume they were paid to do the play in schools?), with just our little class watching. There were only three actors, two men and a woman, and they had a rack of period clothes which they wore interchangeably to indicate which character they were currently in. It was luminous. We were collectively enraptured. I can still remember parts of it. Whoever you were, thank you.

Mr Buckle showed us the ambiguity of Banquo, and the risk Shakespeare was taking in painting an ancestor of the King as less than a saint. Mr Buckle showed us how Macbeth is about clothes, and how they fit. He showed us how the porter's obscene good humour makes the horror of what has just happened, and of what is about to happen, sharper and more shocking.

In Wilfred Owen, the horror and the pity are just there for anyone to see. I still cry on Remembrance Day for the doomed cattle of the first war.

One of the things Mr Buckle taught us was how to see the erotic elements in it.  The lust for death and fellow man in 'Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead... Love, your eyes lose lure when I behold eyes blinded in my stead' was not so obvious to me until he pointed it out. The shock when I realised that there can be more than one way to read the same words stayed with me. 

Although the lesson didn't stick so well. I was surprised when a classicist friend told me at college that my favourite Latin poem, Catullus' Passer mortuus est .. was about the poet's impotence. I was embarrassed and appalled at the time. Now I can't read any poem about birds at all without bursting into giggles. "No longer the mighty bustard strides, across the trackless fen". Fnarr. Thanks Susie! I am glad I read Ted Hughes before I met you.

By the time O-levels (fnarr) came round, I knew Macbeth and our bits of Wilfred Owen off by heart without any rote learning or drilling or even effort. It had just all been absorbed because all of it is so interesting and meaningful and clever and tragic. And I loved it. 

Both of them are still alive for me. Shining lights I can read over and over again.

English Literature remains the only exam I have ever failed. 

So did half the rest of my set. Most others got Cs. An O-level fail used to put you in the bottom half of the population. We were the brightest in my school. I was the brightest of them. According to the state I can barely read.

The lower sets did a lot better. Apparently Mr Buckle had been experimenting on us, trying to get us to see why he cared about literature. He managed that.

I was at the time, and remain, deeply grateful to an inspired teacher who was brave enough to try to teach his subject.

Thank you. I never knew your first name.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


The first decent English winter I can remember for a long time is over, and everywhere March, with his sweet showers, is piercing the drought of February to the root.

I woke up so early this morning that I decided it was technically still last night, and that it would be OK to have a smoke before I went back to bed.

Sitting in the garden with a cup of tea and a cigar, watching the sky lighten, there was a wonderful, beautiful cacophony of birdsong.

The glorious sound of a thousand new creatures, all shouting, at the tops of their voices: "Does anyone fancy a fuck?"

Is it any wonder that England has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe when Nature herself is screaming the imperative to immortality from every hedgerow?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Immortal Claud Cockburn

Three quotes:

"A devout and serious Christian, she was often bothered by what she read of socialists because she could not, instantly and absolutely, see where they were so wrong. To her horrified ear, they kept sounding as though they had ideas rather like Christ's."

"He had been upset by my observation that a wartime Minister of Information was compelled, in the national interest, to such continuous acts of duplicity that even his natural hair must grow to resemble a wig."

"If I wrote a book about England I should call it What About Wednesday Week? which is what English people say when they are making what they believe to be an urgent appointment."

This last reminds me of the Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey, who, being asked on Desert Island Discs whether there was any Irish expression equivalent to mañana, replied "There are several, but none of them convey quite the same sense of terrifying urgency".

Haughey saying this is a very clear directly experienced memory of mine from childhood, so it was almost certainly a different man on a different program. Saying something else.