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The interview

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I had been invited for an interview.

The purpose of the interview was to discover whether I was suitable for a higher degree programme. The institution to which I was applying has achieved a very high status both in the UK and internationally. In consequence a Master’s degree from such a university is an esteemed qualification. I had completed an application and made an attempt to suggest that I was ‘good enough’ for a place. I had written a personal statement that was very short and, prior to my interview, my daughters had conducted two trial interviews with me.

These trial interviews had been very helpful because – as it turned out – I had not been used to answering questions about art in general or my art in particular. Just giving answers was a bit of a novelty and caused me to think more clearly about what I did and why I did it. In addition, one daughter had told me that nowadays art institutions are interested in a person’s experience and that I should draw attention to some of the places in which I had worked – such as Wormwood Scrubs maximum security prison in London as well as in an international high-tech IT company. The other daughter had told me that I should be as concrete as possible and not give vague or abstract answers. She also told me that I should bring along one or two of my past and present sketchbooks and any other ‘thing’ that might reveal something interesting about myself.

In preparation for the interview I had placed four rather small canvasses that I had painted in a bag, and, in another, three sketchbooks, three copies of a ‘zine that I used to produce and two rather weird books that I had made. (However, crazy as it seems, I never did manage to show my interviewer the books.) Three of the canvasses featured people and one represented a semi-apocalyptic landscape.

On the day of the interview I felt reasonably calm but just before setting off to the University I reached into an under-the-stairs cupboard to get a large plastic bag for my sketch books and virtually knocked myself out. I had bashed my head against a wooden box the edge of which left a deep wound to my head. This was not a good start. Anyway, I patched myself up but I did not really feel ‘all there’. However, I arrived on time and the woman at reception told me to fill in a form by ‘following the line’. Unfortunately I followed the wrong line on the form that she gave me and therefore I incurred her displeasure. This was not good.

I was given an identity card which I was told to hang around my neck. Then, after a few minutes the person who was to interview me appeared. I liked her immediately. I liked her voice. It was melodic and she smiled at me. ‘How do you do,’ I said. (This was something I rather regretted: one of my daughters had said that modern people do not say this any more.)

The interview took place in a surprisingly bare and rather large office. It reminded me of rooms in which psychological experiments take place: it was pared down, stripped back, minimal and functional. Some sort of air-conditioning apparatus seemed to be operating. I sat on one side of a table and A. the interviewer sat on the opposite side. I took my four canvasses out of the tissue paper in which they were wrapped and arranged them so A. could see them. They consisted of a Rohingya refugee, the blasted landscape, a Syrian refugee and the singer Jorja Smith. (People had told me that they were good paintings.)

The interview took on an almost conversational course. This meant that even if I thought we would end up somewhere we did not. It was as if we were in a labyrinth with no actual exit but which time alone would declare as the end point.

I was asked about the role art had played in my life and we spent quite a lot of time talking about my mother’s rather tragic life experiences – and the fact that I had begun to use art most explicitly in some of my lectures and presentations. We touched upon a number of artists and I mentioned how Marlene Dumas’ work and observations had had a very good effect upon me. (She had said something like ‘If you like an image, paint it.’) I reflected on the fact that I was deeply impressed by Rembrandt and his ‘presence’ as well as Jacques-Louis David and his ‘Oath of the Horatii’; in fact, I realised that I had forgotten the names of a number of artists that had intrigued me. The interviewer A. was not that impressed with my painting of the Syrian refugee (which was a bit disappointing) but she did react positively to the preliminary charcoal sketches that I had made of the same refugee and she said that she would have liked to see a wall filled with these drawings.

We touched upon some of my experiences during my two-year foundation course in art and then I surfaced a troubling fact: I told A. that a photography tutor had told me that I should not speak about my work in the manner in which I was so speaking. But the same tutor neither told me what was wrong with my type of speech nor how I ‘should’ speak about my art. As a result I was not confident about what to say about my work. A part of my response had been to ‘shut up.’ A. said that this was ‘a shame’ and that I might simply have had a bad experience but that it was important to move on and not ‘shut down.’

The best part of the interview occurred when I fished the ‘zine out of a small bag. ‘Ooh,’ she said; ‘What have you got for me? A fanzine!

Well, I’m not sure that it’s exactly a fanzine – it’s some sort of publication.‘ And then I told her that it was based on something brilliant that the people who produced ‘Go’ for Sheffield did some years ago.

I passed her a copy and said: ‘This is for you.’

This is when things became funny. She thumbed through the thing (it was about 32 pages long) and then I reached over towards her and tried to find the page which happened to include a random autobiography of myself. The autobiography began with a photo of me when I was a few months old. I was not an attractive looking boy and I was clothed in something resembling a dress.

Then I heard her say: ‘You were born in 1940.’

This struck me as very funny. It would have made me nearly 80. ‘Oh No! I’m not that old,’ I said whilst looking behind me and behaving as if I was on my last legs. In fact, because I have imperfect hearing she may have said that I was born in the 1940s (which I was).

This exchange left me with the feeling that the mood of the interview had changed. It was light-hearted, insouciant and completely free of pretension.

We covered more ground about my values and perceptions concerning some of the fundamentals of life (love, art, morals and power) but by then the air-conditioning was winning. I was frozen. In the last five minutes of the interview I was given an overview of the course requirements and its specific emphases. The trouble was that my body had decided to respond to the chill with involuntary jerks. I did my best to stop it doing this – but without success. I must have looked very odd. I was increasingly convinced that A. would wonder what sort of lunatic was sitting opposite her.

We shook hands at the end of the interview and she escorted me along a long corridor to the exit. Happily the sun was shining and I began to warm up a bit. A. struck me as a very agreeable, sympathetic, composed and authoritative person.

My response to the interview was to feel very highly motivated to do the course. Quite why I never managed to tell her about my online portfolio I do not know. And those weird books I had made remained hidden from view. Moreover I said almost nothing about how my background and experience would equip me to do the course. But I did enjoy the conversation with A. and the very last thing she said to me was: ‘I will write to you soon.’

 

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Rehab

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I was booked into a kind of rehabilitation programme. The programme was to last for a few weeks between late July and the beginning of September 2019. I knew that I needed to go although, for one reason or another, I react with high levels of anxiety whenever I have to engage with people. So I was going to have to overcome my typical ‘avoidance’ responses.

The programme was a design to furnish us with a completely healthy life-style. (We needed this to survive.) The location was in the town of Aldershot. Aldershot was once famous for being ‘The home of the British Army’; it announced this on the routes into town. It has a football team that trudges along amongst the lower divisions of the English football league. Rather unimaginatively the nickname of the team is the ‘Shots’ – although this rather harmonises with the military history of the town. Nowadays Aldershot is a strange place – with an assorted population – and a mix of old make-do-and-mend dwellings along with the new alienated post-modern developments of housing and supermarkets. Maybe it’s ‘on the up’.

Britain is a pragmatic country and, as testimony to this, the programme is situated in the Aldershot cricket club. But we were not going to hurl cricket balls around. Our life-style management – our recovery programme – was to benefit from the lovely surroundings of a cricket pitch – and parkland – and the views beyond, views of a benign and reassuring countryside. When I drove to the club for my very first session I was surprised to turn away from dreary drab suburbia into a green-laden painterly landscape. (Dreary featureless suburbia has worked positively for the arts in the UK. Artists, writers and musicians have had to use their imaginations, have made creative work and then escaped …)

Once my car was parked, I walked into the pavilion of the cricket club and the programme began. I noticed the photographs of cricket teams on the walls and a display of the smart striped caps that cricketers wear. And then there were wooden memorial boards inscribed with the names of the captains of the cricket team since the year dot. All this, though, was background. I was given a name badge and we were off.

It’s a roll-on roll-off programme. Everyone was at different stages. Some were on their last day and one or two, like me, were at the very beginning. We have an extensive exercise routine to follow and then we have lectures on how best to manage our lives.

As the sessions unfolded I came to know and to be intrigued by the people on the programme. There isn’t much time for chat but we do have a chance to discuss this and that before the class begins as well as at the conclusion of the class. In fact, the class would lend itself to a fascinating documentary. Most people are getting on a bit. I park my car near to a chap called Paul who does his stretching exercises before the course begins. He is an ex-RAF professional – skilled in navigation – and then a consultant with IBM. He loves to play football and tells me about the mind-set of his fellow footballers. He is very clever, modest, astute and he voted to leave the EU ‘just for the hell of it.’ He didn’t really mean for the UK to leave – but there it is. There is Michael – a former army officer who was persuaded to leave the army after 10 years of service and who has never been happy since being so persuaded. He voted to leave the EU ‘because we will always make a success of things.’ He used to live in the nearby town of Farnham and still attends the parish church, the choir of which was ‘once a joy’ but is now ‘in decline.’ Michael is very responsive, his eyes twinkle, he is rather ‘old school’ and he laughs at the ways of world. Then there is Peter who habitually goes on cruises and who has a wife who is disabled and for whom he is the carer. He is a Tottenham Hotspur fan and he admires their Argentinian coach Señor Pochettino. Peter has a wide girth and a ruddy face; he wears brightly coloured t shirts – and, weirdly, when all the rest of us are facing the teacher and following the exercises that are being demonstrated he places himself next to the teacher and faces us. He likes jazz; he likes great rock and roll – and once saw the Rolling Stones perform in the Star and Garter pub in Windsor before they were famous. And then there is Joe – an Irishman – a charming softly-spoken man who is astute enough to treasure a certain modesty and who tells me that he has lived so long in the UK that he has forgotten what it is to be Irish. Les – a big bluff man given to wearing army fatigues or vaguely camouflaged clothing exudes a kind of antipathy to the whole process. He’s gruff and I suppose that once upon a time we would have called him the ‘salt of the earth.’ He participates – but reluctantly. Most of us try to do the exercises and bemoan our physical inadequacies. We have, for example, to bend the soles of our feet up towards our behinds and it’s a real struggle but we give it a go. Les, though, does not relish the challenge. From time to time he is given a bit of a telling-off from the staff. In response Les wears an expression somewhere between a scowl and resentment.

As far as I can tell nearly everyone of the 20 or so rehabilitees (is that a word?) in the class voted to leave the EU. (Underneath it all there is a lament for a lost Britain and an enduring scepticism about ‘otherness.’ )  The only ones who did not vote to leave the EU were the 6 nursing staff – all of whom are under 40 (or thereabouts). The nursing staff have a style and conduct themselves in a version of modern human-service culture: they are affectionate but really quite tough-minded.

Overall, there is a good or very good atmosphere in the room – with fairly large doses of repartee and banter. Some of it is very witty and clever. Most of the ag-ing people rely on established social coping habits. A few still attempt to ‘be somebody’; they project a stalwart image; they bemoan the fact that they are not really supposed to drink wine or that gins-and-tonic have to be drunk surreptitiously. The big men are used to being taken into account but, at some level, they know that their power is ebbing away.

We are closely monitored by the staff – our blood pressure and heart rate are regularly taken – and we are quizzed about our living habits, mental state, and whether or not we are behaving in accord with the strict standards of the recovery regime. ‘Oh that’s good! Your heart rate is 101 – that’s in the right zone – and now you can push it up a bit.’ ‘Keep marching on the spot.’ ‘This is how you do an upward row.’ (As I say, it would make a wonderful study for a televisual documentary.)

Of us rehabilitees (is that still a word?) there are 5 or more men to every woman. I noticed that one of the chaps (of the 20 or so in the group) was actually filming us on his iPhone; a brief and discreet piece of filming – which led me to wonder what the purpose of it was. The physical characteristics of the group are fascinating. Most probably have a waist line that is over the desired limit (which is less than 36 inches) but, oddly enough, few are obese. The men are nearly all grey-haired or balding. The woman are quiet and generally less forthcoming than the men. One dances beautifully. I told her that her movements were ‘almost dainty’. She smiled. (I think she is a singer – but whatever she is she certainly knows the right way to move – and to move gracefully. Is she called Heather?)

The nursing staff are in the ratio of 2 women to one man. The women practise what the assertiveness courses call ‘tough love.’ They are very good to me – and they urge me to wear clothes commensurate with being an artist. The clothes of the rehabilitees are fairly nondescript and mainly redolent of old England. The nursing staff use newer forms of English. Statements often begin with ‘So ….‘ They are inclined to treat us as over-sized puppies. I have the sense that we are not infantilised and we are expected to be self-disciplined. I like the staff.

In fact, each member of staff is distinguished by something that is particularly charming: Chris comes from Ayrshire and speaks in a Scottish lowlands accent. We reminisce happily about Scotland. I ask her if she’s a bit of a nationalist; ‘No,‘ she replies; ‘I don’t want to stop being part of the Union.‘ She has very successfully supported the education of her daughter who is just off to study for a degree in Arabic and French at a very good university. Sue is business-like and has a kind of peremptoriness that keeps me on my toes. She makes rapid authoritative interventions and keeps things ship-shape. When she discovered that I was a bit maladjusted she suggested I see a psychotherapist. (Generous as it was, I declined the offer.) Gary wears a different ‘uniform’ to the nurses; he’s clad in shorts and an orangey shirt; he’s one of the two physical training instructors. He asks me what I’m doing. I reply, ‘I haven’t a clue,’ to which he replies, ‘I thought as much.’ And then: ‘Robert, if you were to stand here you’d be doing what it says – but where you are is not what you should be doing.‘ It’s actually very funny; the scene is a bit like watching a gormless private making a hash of disassembling a rifle whilst his sergeant looks on pityingly. Lesley is extraordinary: somehow, she maintains a smile – a delightful smile – throughout the different aspects of the sessions. She engages with the class over a range of topics: ‘Who had a barbecue over the bank holiday?’ ‘Did anyone eat couscous?’ ‘It’s hot in here but it’s cooler than all the other places,’ and she laughs about our style and our future and she is always buoyant and optimist. She, too, has a daughter – a teenage daughter – and she reckons that she might be enjoying the calm before the storm. Lesley will always navigate the next wave of life however turbulent it may be. Eileen occasionally wears her hair in something approaching the cutest pigtails ever invented. She is as steady as a rock and her diligence extends to kicking my feet into the right position before taking my blood pressure. She urges me not to wear my faded purple-haze t-shirt; instead she requests that I wear something more original or, at least something ‘not boring.’  I am moved to please her; she is a lovely person. Steve – like Gary – is in shorts and the same orangey shirt. He’s adept at combining a steady stream of instructions as we do the exercises. He tells us to ‘warm up slowly‘ and to gauge just how much effort we should make and he is ready to tell us that we’re ‘excellent’ even if we’re barely more than mediocre. Steve is proud of his work and delivers his lectures on ‘keeping fit and healthy’ with a fluid mobility. Actually we’re a bit reluctant to be forthcoming with our answers to his questions. No one wants to be the class nerd.

As people graduate they receive a completion certificate and a kind of run-down on who they are vis-a-vis progress. Tacitly, they are expected to give a farewell speech or at least say something. Most do say something and then we all applaud. One or two remain silent. They do not trust themselves to speak in a quasi-public arena. Les – the chap in the combat gear – did decide to say something at the end of his last session: ‘I’ll give you some feedback,’ he said to the staff. They greeted this remark with indulgent pleasing sounds. Then Les said: ‘I don’t think you should be so bossy.’ The group maintained a silence. I had the sense that a norm had been broken.

The music that accompanies us is a mix of old pop and appropriate modern stuff. Tom Jones of the 1960s still tells us that ‘It’s not unusual’ whilst Ellie Goulding underlines the fact that ‘Anything can happen.’ Someone reckoned we ought to have the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ alive‘.

And yes, anything can happen. Once or twice people do not look very well – but we all just hope to stay alive. For us the prospect of death perpetually hovers – sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as just a shadowy presence; it’s a palpable phantom; we are, as it were haunted. It’s not something that we make overly explicit. But one response to our situation was voiced by Steve, a man who drives a beautiful silver Porsche and a fellow participant; he said: ‘We have to make the most of the life we have. Sooner or later it will be gone.’

I sometimes think of Amy Winehouse and the lyrics to her famous song, ‘Rehab.’ Amy wrote:

They tried to make me go to rehab –
I said, “no, no, no.”

Well, we went to rehab and enjoyed some very good company.

 

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There’s nothing short of dying: an exhibition

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I’d been listening to Bob Dylan talking about the song, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’ It’s a great song and beautifully outlines the character of a Sunday. The song tells us about a man who awakes with a hangover and who then goes on to describe the distinctive feel of a Sunday. It’s an American song so there is the scent of frying chicken, a sidewalk, the distant sound of a church bell – and then there’s a small kid ‘cussin’ at a can that he is ‘kickin.’

But here’s the mood told by the singer – that Sunday mood:

‘… There’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone –
And there’s nothing short of dying half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleeping city sidewalk – Sunday morning coming down.’

Perhaps, then, Sundays are always touched with a kind of reflective melancholia – of sobriety and of virtue on trial.

In fact, I don’t mind Sundays here in England. I don’t mind hearing the church bells and thinking about all the people who look forward to their special lunch – and I like pausing a bit – of stepping out and away from the ebb and flow of life. I like Sundays because I can live more easily in the company of my imagination. (It’s as if I switch off to switch on.) And one of the best aspects of my Sunday is the fact that, just down the road, the Oxfam Books and Music store is open all day. Along with the Art College and the old crumbling brick walls, the store is just about the best thing there is in the town in which I live.

Over the years I’ve found some enchanting music in the store. I picked up Mississippi John Hurt’s wonderful vinyl double album and Nina Simone’s ‘Little girl blue’ – and several ‘Blue Note’ records and lots of Neil Young and Bob Dylan. But the store is also packed full of terrific books. Most recently I bought Richard Ford’s ‘The lay of the land’ and Primo Levi’s ‘If Not Now, When?’ along with Janosch’s perfect ‘A Letter for Tiger.’ There are sofas in the store so anyone can choose a book, sit down and read whatsoever they wish. There’s a turntable too …

But on this most recent Sunday (14 July 2019) something different was there to delight me: I discovered that the Oxfam store had teamed up with the illustrators’ course at the local Art College to work on a really attractive project: The brief for the student illustrators was to take an old book – something with a plain and non-descript cover – and create a new design that would both reflect the content of the book and speak to a more contemporary audience. And the shop had a display featuring all the books along with the new designs created by the illustrators. I thought it was wonderful.

Each book had become a unique work of art. And each book cost 5 pounds sterling. I couldn’t make up my mind which out of several books to buy. So I will return to the store tomorrow. But, in the meantime, the photograph shows some of those designs. For me, this is a lovely example of how best to make use of the resources that we already have. Imagine: beautiful works of art for just 5 pounds.

Post script: Bob Dylan chose the song ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down‘ for an edition of his unusual radio show, ‘Theme time radio‘. It was broadcast a number of years ago. The song itself was written by Kris Kristofferson. It was recorded in 1969 by Ray Stevens before becoming a number one hit on the Billboard US Country charts for Johnny Cash.

Version 2

You’re always drawn to the crazy one

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It’s a high school class in America. We’re in New York City. It’s all about Creative Writing and English. Language reveals the man; So, speak that I may see you!

A bell rings and the teacher begins the class:

Open your books. Turn to this poem, “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke. If you don’t have a book look over someone’s shoulder. Stanley, would you read the poem aloud? Thanks.

And so Stanley reads the poem; it’s “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke:

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my waist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

Teacher: ‘Thanks again, Stanley. Take a few minutes to look over the poem again. Let it sink in. So, when you read the poem what happened?

The Class: ‘What do you mean, What happened?

Teacher: ‘You read the poem. Something happened, something moved in your head, in your body … Or nothing happened. You’re not required to respond to every stimulus in the universe. You are not weather vanes.

The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, what are you talking about?

Teacher: ‘I’m saying that you don’t have to respond to everything a teacher or anyone else sets before you.

But they look dubious: And collectively they seem to say: ‘Oh yeah, tell that to some of the teachers around here …

The Class: ‘Mr McCourt, do you want us to talk about what the poem means?

Teacher: ‘I’d like you to talk about whatever you’d like to talk about in the general neighbourhood of the poem. Bring in your grandmother if you like. Don’t worry about the “real” meaning of the poem. Even the poet won’t know that. When you read it something happened or nothing happened. Would you raise your hand if nothing happened. All right, no hands. So something happened, in your head or in your heart …

You’re a writer. What happens when you hear music? Chamber music, Rock? You see a couple arguing on the street. You look at a child rebelling against its mother. You see a homeless man begging. You see a politician giving a speech. You ask someone to go out with you. You observe the response of the other person. Because you’re a writer you ask yourself – always always always – What’s happening baby?

[I think he must mean: What’s happening to me – what’s it doing to me? and, What’s happening for them? What’s going on for them – or, what do I feel is going on for them? etc.]

And then the teacher succeeds in getting his students to respond to the poem by giving a first response:

Teacher: ‘Well, like this poem is about a father dancing with his kid and it’s not pleasant because the father is drunk and insensitive.

Brad responds: ‘If it’s not pleasant why does he hang on like death?

Monica: ‘There’s a lot going on here. The kid is dragged around the kitchen. He could be a rag doll for all the papa cares.

Brad, again: ‘There’s a giveaway word here: Romped. That’s a happy word, right? I mean he could have said danced, something ordinary. But he says romped, and, like you’re always telling us, a word can change the atmosphere of a sentence or a paragraph. So, romped creates a happy atmosphere.

Jonathon: ‘You can tell me if I’m out of order Mr McCourt but did your father ever dance you around the kitchen?

Teacher: ‘He never danced us around the kitchen, but he got us out of bed late at night to sing patriotic Irish songs and promise to die for Ireland.

Jonathon: ‘Yeah, I figured the poem had something to do with your childhood.

Teacher: ‘That’s partly true but I asked you to read this because it captures a moment, a mood, and … there might be a deeper meaning … What about the mother?

Sheila: ‘What’s going on in this poem is very simple. This guy has a hard job, coal miner or something. Comes home with a battered knuckle, hands caked with dirt. The mum sits over there – mad as hell – but she’s used to it. She knows it’s going to happen once a week when he gets paid. Like your dad, Mr McCourt. The kid loves his father because you’re always drawn to the crazy one. Doesn’t matter that the mother keeps the house going. Kid takes that for granted. So when the dad comes home, Oh, he’s all charged up from the drink and gets the kid all excited.

Teacher: ‘What happens when the poem finishes, David?

David: ‘The dad waltzes him off to bed. The mom puts the pans back on the kitchen shelf. Next day is Sunday and the dad gets up feeling lousy. The mom makes breakfast but won’t talk to anyone and the kid is caught between. He’s only about nine because he’s only tall enough to scrape his ear on the buckle. The mother would like to walk out and get a divorce because she’s sick of this lousy life but she can’t because she’s stuck in the middle of West Virginia and there’s no escape when you don’t have money.

And so it goes on … and the pupils’ responses to the poem begin to connect with how the text and meanings could be made into a film and how poems are great if they are taken as they are and not over-analysed.

It all finishes with a wonderful dispute between two of those high school classmates:

One takes the view that there would be nothing more boring than making a film about people falling out over the interpretation of a sonnet. The other retorts: ‘Teacher, tell him he can kiss my arse.

And to this the teacher replies: ‘That’s a message you’ll have to deliver yourself.

The bell rings. Life goes on.

 

Footnote: We used to try and work like this when we were ‘teaching’ things like ‘managing people’ or ‘personal ethics’; we didn’t have specified objectives; we wanted to let realities unfold and truths emerge. Of course, sooner or later, a more repressive regime took over. All the creative stuff was eliminated. And that was that.

This excerpt is taken from Frank McCourt’s book, ‘Teacher man.’ Frank McCourt is the teacher.

Version 2

A favourite poem

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A man tells a story.

He tells a story about the first book he bought. (Actually it’s an incredible book.) He then, as a result of his experience in a bookstore, makes an observation about himself: He realises that he has a deep-seated psychological disposition to react in a certain way. This is what he tells us about that book and that disposition:

‘When I was thirteen … I listened to Shakespeare plays on the radio of Mrs Purcell the blind woman who lived next door (in Limerick, Ireland). A fuse blew the night we listened to Julius Caesar and I was so eager to find out what happened to Brutus and Mark Antony I went to O’Mahoney’s bookshop to get the rest of the story. A sales clerk in the shop asked me in a superior way if I intended to buy that book and I told him I was thinking about it but first I’d have to find out what happened to everyone in the end, especially the one I liked, Brutus. The man said never mind, pulled the book away from me, and said this was not a library and would I kindly leave. I backed into the street, embarrassed and blushing – and wondering at the same time why people won’t stop bothering people. Even when I was small, eight or nine, I wondered why people won’t stop bothering people and I’ve been wondering ever since.’

That first book is ‘The works of William Shakespeare, gathered into one volume’ – and it was the only book that the man took with him to America. (He admits that he did not buy the book solely for its cultural value: he also recognised that, in those days, a man who knew some Shakespeare could impress the girls of New York.) And his psychological disposition is made clear: he simply does not like the fact that people bother other people. And that they won’t stop bothering other people.

The man moves on through life. He has all sorts of jobs. He ends up in New York teaching creative writing and English at a good New York school. But, as with every school in the USA, he’s up against the young Americans and it’s no easy task teaching them creative writing and english. He actually succeeds and even gets them to enjoy exploring, for example, the creative side of written recipes. But when he returns to consider some of the more formal aspects of creative writing he decides to tell the students about his favourite poem. Here is the poem and here are the students’ reactions:

‘They groan when I announce that I am going to read them my favourite poem. That pisses me off and I tell them. A shocked silence. Teacher using bad language. Never mind. Recite the poem:

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep
And doesn’t know where to find them.
Leave then alone and they will come home
Wagging their tails behind them

The class reacts: ‘Hey, what’s going on here? That’s not a poem. This is high school and he’s giving us Mother Goose. Is he pulling our leg? Is he playing little games with us?

The man – the teacher responds:

I recite the poem again and encourage them to waste no time in digging for the deeper meaning.’

They respond again: ‘Aw come on. Is this a joke? Man, this is high school.’

The teacher replies:

On the surface the poem, or nursery rhyme, seems simple, a plain story of a little girl who has lost her sheep, but are you listening?

She has learned to leave them alone. Bo Peep is cool. She trusts her sheep. She doesn’t go bothering them as they nibble away in pasture, glen, vale and hillside. They need their grass, their roughage, and the occasional draught of water from a tinkling mountain stream. Also they have little lambs who need time for bonding with their mothers after they’ve frolicked all day with their peers. They don’t need the world barging in and destroying the mood. They might be sheep, they might be lambs, they might be ewes they might be rams, but they are entitled to a little communal happiness before they are transformed into the mutton we devour, the wool we wear.

And the pupils’ reaction? Well, they’d like to know if their teacher is trying to make some sort of point.

He replies: ‘No. I am not trying to make some point except to say I like this poem for its simple message.’

And they ask: ‘What’s that?

And his reply takes us back to that deep-seated disposition – a disposition that was beginning to be articulated when the man was 8 years old: ‘That people should stop bothering people.

He adds: Little Bo Peep backs off. She trusts her sheep. She leaves them alone and they come home and you can imagine their joyful reunion. Bo Peep knits by the fire happy in the knowledge that she has bothered nobody.

(In fact, there is much more going on in this account: the wider message (kept subliminal) is that the very children he is schooling will be ‘bothered’ by the educational system and turned into ‘mutton’ only to be devoured by the wider consumerist society.)

I like this account. I think this is an example of excellent teaching. The man goes on to tell us how to get going with creative writing.  Later in life he becomes an acclaimed author.

 

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Miley Cyrus – superstar

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Rock journalism is a specialist and rather esoteric art. I used to study with a young man who was hell-bent on becoming a rock journalist; he was the kind of person who would spend hours on the telephone or internet trying to get tickets for the Glastonbury festival. He reckoned that no one could be an authentic rock journalist unless they had direct experience of Glastonbury and many other other rock festivals. He had a point. (In fact, when he did actually get to Glastonbury he drank such a huge amount of beer that he became oblivious to much of what was going on.)  I’ve been struck by the fact that the rock music scene must be one of the few places where ‘looks’ don’t matter too much. It means that talent actually counts for something.

Anyway, one of the cultural success stories of the UK is the quality of its rock music and the buzz of its festival scene. Of course, a few days ago we had the high excess – the super-abundance – of Glastonbury to enjoy. I noticed how the rock journalists reviewed the various acts: how Stormzy ‘tore up’ the stage, how Kylie ‘beguiled and charmed’ her massive audience, how the strangely melancholic and ghostly plangent chords of headliners The Cure re-created moments of rock poetry. But for me the outstanding, the stunningly mesmerising performance was given by Miley Cyrus. She looked super-sensational; she sounded super-sensational; she was super-sensational; her’s was one of the most sustained and powerful rock performances imaginable. I was delighted for her. She was breathtaking. Miley even managed to include her monumental ‘Nothing breaks like a heart‘ along with a mesmerising tribute – a kind of homage – to Amy Winehouse with a stunning version of ‘Back to Black‘.

I think Miley Cyrus showed us how rock stars become super stars. As she performed it was, quite frankly, simply impossible to take one’s eyes off her. And I discovered that I was not alone: A journalist from the ‘Spectator’ told us that, as her performance unfolded, he ‘stayed to worship’ her; and then he added: ‘Of the 500 or so performances I’ve seen at Glastonbury over the years, this was up with the very best. She did ‘Jolene’ as twangily as her godmother Dolly Parton, Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ with a banshee wail as mighty as Robert Plant’s, ‘Back to Black’ as debauchedly as Amy Winehouse, ‘Nothing Else Matters’ as heavily as Metallica … Then her dad Billy Ray Cyrus came on with rapper Lil Nas X to perform the recent viral number one hit ‘Old Town Road’. I do feel sorry for all those of you who missed it.

And here is another review from the Guardian newspaper: It begins:
 ‘The narrative around Miley Cyrus has always been about how she picks up one sound – hip-hop, pure pop, gnarly authenticity – and then “rejects” it as she moves on to the next thing. Her current styling is “hard rock karaoke at a gritty midwest bar” …

Well, that’s a bit mean-spirited! I would have said that her current style is ultra-fashion blitzkrieg rock. Better still, it’s simply star-spangled rock. But the Guardian review went on to capture a little bit more of the phenomenon that is Miley Cyrus as follows:

… Miley … stomps around the Pyramid stage in wet-look leather and a tiny skin-tight vest, yet spouts new-age wisdom … and cries as she sings ‘The Most’, a song about her mum.
The glorious thing about Miley is that she doesn’t really make any sense, and her chaotic energy is the thing that binds it all together and keeps everyone goggling even when she makes moves that would traditionally result in shedding followers – She covers Amy Winehouse and Dolly Parton, brings out her dad Billy Ray and rapper Lil Nas X for the latter’s ‘Old Town Road’, and wears a lilac wig to play ‘On a Roll’, the “hit” from the episode of Black Mirror where she plays ill-fated pop star Ashley O. Played half in its original synth-pop style, half as the Nine Inch Nails song it riffs on, it becomes a hard-rock battering ram yowled so mightily that she makes Steven Tyler sound like Aled Jones. As insane as it is brilliant.’

Well, yes! She really was astonishingly brilliant and for years to come, when the history of Glastonbury and rock is written and re-written, there will always be the recognition of Miley Cyrus at Glastonbury 2019. What’s more, in a striking concluding gesture, she suggested a willingness to sacrifice herself for art.

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Love Island: the beautiful and the damned

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The television show ‘Love Island’ is a splendid example of hugely successful modern programme-making. I think it’s a very good piece of television because it satisfies its viewers (including me) on several levels: First off we can be indulgent voyeurs; the young women and men on the show spend most of their time wearing next to nothing – and, under the guise of exploring their relationships, we can simply gawp at – and ogle -the body beautiful. It’s also a perfect projection screen: thus, whilst none of us have had any first-hand direct face-to-face experience of the ‘contestants’ we project onto their ‘characters’ all sorts of fancies and attributions; we make judgements about them even though we really should know better. Third, we do actually ‘see’ some really basic inter-personal dynamics that reflect our shared humanity; in fact, the people on the show demonstrate recurring patterns of behaviour which are permanently at large in the wider society: they whisper behind each others’ backs, they are jealous, they deploy various psychological tactics to secure or advance their self-interest and they deny the obvious realities of their feelings; they use all sorts of devices both to protect their self-image and to avoid facing truths about themselves. It is all sublimely revealing.

And more: The programme is particularly effective because it taps into our desire to know what will happen next: ‘Who will be evicted?’ ‘Which couple will survive the course?’ ‘Who will come off best and who worst in the interpersonal skirmishes?’  (And perhaps surprisingly the level of knowledge or at least the lack of it displayed by some participants (one, for example, did not know the capital city of France, whilst another had no idea when the first world war started) rather underlines why important decisions facing country should not be the subject of referendums.)

The programme has also achieved a kind of national significance: the most recent edition of Love Island continues to attract really asinine comments and judgements from the mainstream media people who discuss the participants – either on daytime TV or in the stupid newspapers – and who are becalmed in their culture of specious mediocrity. As usual the media-journalists are voraciously parasitic.

The major downside of the programme is that the participants – in virtue of their sheer exposure and the way our culture of celebrity and its media operate –  know they are onto a good thing just by having the luck to participate on and in the show. They can create any number of stories about themselves and make a lot of money whilst modelling fashion and trotting out platitudes. (It’s another example of the deceptions intrinsic to our post-truth age.) They can pick and choose from any number of ‘off-the-shelf’ narratives and watch the pennies roll in.

I have become more and more familiar with each of the people who appear on the programme. AND, most importantly, my favourites are the astonishingly authentic Maura Higgins and the curiously anachronistic Anton. I liked Maura from the word go: here was (and is) someone who is deliciously frank about her passions and her values. She’s a hell of a young woman and hell itself would freeze over if it decided to cross her. Maura is good news for humanity; here is someone who is excitingly trust-worthy. In an epic piece of television she has struck a real blow for mature feminism too; and in so doing she’s made nearly all the males look pretty grim. So, it’s hats off to Maura. Anton is a decent chap; he’s been knocked down and he gets up; he’s knocked down again and he gets up and then he’s knocked down again … but he is never self-pitying. ‘It is what it is’ repeats Anton, ‘and you’ve just got to take it.’ I like Elma too – but she was cruelly evicted. She’s a good soul and deserved better.

Yes – for me Maura are Anton are the top woman and the top man. respectively. Amongst the others – well, one or two of them are simply the kind of people that I would avoid at all costs  – but that’s another story.

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Alison Lurie and the way we were

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There is something peculiar and unsettling, about Alison Lurie’s novel, ‘Love and friendship’. It is peculiar because her book is set in a time in which I once lived  – and despite that time being more than half a century ago it all seems very familiar; in many ways I still live with and through the ideas of that time. It is unsettling because the realities that Alison Lurie describes show the necessities for cultural change. In ‘Love and friendship’ she evokes deep and enduring features of East Coast North American culture. I think she does this exceptionally well and profiles not only the way a certain class of white educated people spoke to each other but also she identifies the firmly established attitudes of both sexes in relation to their opposite sex. She published her novel in 1962 and it plainly reflects the beliefs, manners and even some of the cultural norms of the late 50s and early 60s: She shows us the life and outlook of both women and men; it is the women who are more or less condemned to a life of ‘support’ and ‘mothering’ and all the old cliches depicting the ‘second sex. And she also points to the fact that the men can ‘get away with it.’ For example, one central character is a philanderer, womaniser, heart-breaker and all-round self-indulgent chap – but who is accepted in the community as if it doesn’t really matter. He enjoys ‘playing’ with the fairer sex and in the culture of the times it was somehow, ‘OK’. She also makes explicit the nastiness facing gay people – people who love but ‘dare not speak its name.’ Gay liberation was still on the horizon.

Alison Lurie’s book is excellent because it really does succeed in bringing to life the conversations, private thoughts and the intellectual deliberations of her subjects. In so doing she not only lays bare the endemic sexism of the times but she also pinpoints an essential problem facing ‘the intellectual.’ She does this by reprising their long established worry – a worry made explicit in some of the following remarks – written in letters to a friend by one of the faculty members of the un-named New England university college. In those letters the author writes:

Really: Does any kind of intellectual argument or process have more than the most superficial effects? Sometimes I’m tempted to regard the whole enterprise … with immense indifference. [The local people say that] ‘They talk a lot up at the College’ – but life is going on somewhere else.’

In another letter the same author:

The College is not a microcosm of the world. The world … is a disorderly dirty scrapheap. The College, on the other hand, is a botanical or zoological garden, where each flower has its cage, each beast has its metal identification tag.

This latter observation is one that particularly troubles me. I used to work in a college and one of the charges levelled against it by perhaps a majority of the mature students was that it ‘wasn’t reality.’ It was, in fact, an unusual piece of reality – one that was set apart from the ‘dirty scrapheap’ of life. And the question that forced itself upon me was simply this: Did anything we did really make any difference? Did it (as the author of the quote above notes) have only the most ‘superficial’ effects?

For many of our students the effects were at best temporary: the real issues for them lay in the realities of the practical world.

And this leads me to a broad criticism of academic courses that think they can enhance practice: What is lacking in all those courses that are supposed to enhance practice is a good theory of practice itself. Practice takes place in the realm of felt experience – and this experience is significantly different from that generated within the academy. Practice is about dealing with power, the a-rationality of others – and always entails improvisation. Practitioners have to be strategic and sense how best to respond to dynamic situations. They cannot rely on the application of rationally derived rules. They cannot rely on the exhortations of the academic.

I have read some of the criticism (that is mainly very positive) of Alison Lurie’s book and although the critics agree that she provides a marvellous portrayal of a culture and society that has gradually given way to something apparently more equal and a trifle less sexist the critics seem to miss the point about the entirely different games that have to be played in order to succeed or be effective in the different realms of practice. The College environment is a kind of ‘botanical garden’ – a world within which complex games are played; it enjoys luxuries that do not apply in those other ‘outside’ worlds. But those other worlds are themselves laced with moves and counter-moves, feints, deceptions and endless hurdles to overcome. The world is a scrapheap and the rose garden is the exception.

Overall though, the emergence of the Me Too phenomenon underlines the fact that the sexism and exploitation which Alison Lurie highlighted in 1962 is still obviously manifest in western society. It’s plainly worse in many other cultures. And this shows just how slowly a culture actually changes. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) theory gives an excellent account as to why this is so.

Post script: My friend, the writer and thinker Peter Villiers, also worked with me in the same College. He would argue that one of the best ways of effecting progress towards rationality and justice was through the methods that we did actually use: thus, day after day, we provided our students with the opportunity to discuss their professional problems and their varying solutions with each other. And what emerged was an appreciation of difference – and a recognition that there were always alternative ways of securing worthwhile ends. In a sense they were ‘comrades in adversity’ and, with a bit of luck, we helped them consolidate their values through the process of debate and discussion.

‘In my life’ – Judy Collins and Alison Lurie

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Each Easter I run a quiz for the family: the quiz has questions on many topics but tends to reflect European and American culture; it includes two music rounds and one picture round. The quiz can last for a good two hours and the teams compete with each other to ‘win’.

The family likes the quiz and, at its conclusion, they each get some sort of reward for their efforts. For example, for one of my daughters I have chosen three vinyl records and a bottle of Bulleit Rye; One of the records is by Memphis Minnie, one is from the celebrated Blue Note club in New York and one is by Judy Collins. The one by Judy Collins entitled ‘In my life’ was produced in 1966 and hailed as a new departure for a folk singer. (I bought the record in 1967 and was always slightly puzzled about it: I think this was the year when the counter-culture really took shape and the record was marked by an emerging originality.)

For some of us – including me – the 1960s allowed our imaginations to ‘take off’; we were freed to live and mediate experience through our imaginative powers. It was a good time and often an exhilarating time.

By chance at the same time I selected Judy Collins’ (1966) ’In my life’ as one of the vinyl records for my daughter I came across an old edition of a paperback book by Alison Lurie. The book was first published in 1962 and my copy looks terrific. Its title? ‘Love and friendship’.

The book is a fascinating read because it reveals aspects of East Coast American culture that prefigure the counter-culture of the mid and late sixties. She shows us (in 1962) the divide between men and women, girls and boys; there are marked class distinctions and there are patterns of interactions that are subtle, intricate and constrained. There are old stoves, galoshes – and people write letters; no one says ‘cool’ or ‘like’ … but the people are – well – they are primed for the ‘new’.

I think the book is tremendously interesting because it can be seen as a description and analysis of a culture that no longer exists. There are glimmers of its legacy in works such as Joan Didion’s ‘Where I was from’ and the kind of aside mentioned in ‘Billy Lynn’s long half-time walk’ when its author refers to ‘old money’ – but overall, the world that Alison Lurie describes and portrays is gone. The contrast say between ‘Love and friendship’ and any of the more contemporary work by Bret Easton Ellis underlines the striking shift in aspects of the American way.

Lurie’s book is excellent because, in addition to showing us how certain Americans lived and thought in the years immediately preceding the Hippy movement and the Woodstock phenomenon, it includes an exploration of relationships – but it also has moments of intellectual reflection – the kind that make me stop to consider what I have just read; Here are two of them:

In a letter reflecting on teaching at a college somewhere on the east coast of the USA a writer-in-residence responds to the judgement that a fellow academic’s whole career has been ‘a failure’ with the observation:

What is success, after all, but the proof that one has come to terms with society.

And:

Writing comedy is a dangerous project; One … lays oneself open to the fatal accusation of having no sense of humour, to which there is no comeback. The tragic position is much more impregnable; critics who are not moved by one’s tragic works can always be called shallow; they have, obviously, no sense of compassion.

In addition there are references to Emerson and Thoreau and Descartes and there is an insight into how the humanities could be taught imaginatively and rigorously. (There was no internet; students had a few books and actually were required to demonstrate that they could think for themselves. Alison Lurie even provides her readers with a sample assignment from an Humanities course!)

This kind of book and the type of education it profiles stands as a sociological document – as an indicator of the striking shift that has taken place in American culture (a shift paralleled in UK culture). And this takes me back to the Judy Collins LP ‘In my life’: on it she includes songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, Donovan as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In each song the lyrics have a depth of meaning. In those days we listened to the songs and tried to make sense of the words. Those words cultivated our imaginations and our sensibilities. As a result we could, if we wished, detach ourselves from the material world. We could live through ideas, hopes and dreams. I think it is far harder to live like that nowadays.

P.S. The photo is taken from International Times – when the music was changing and the walls of the city shook.

 

Tracy Chapman – at Roseland, New York … and so it goes on.

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I was in New York City at the dawn of our new millennium. One of the people staying with me on West 54th street said that Tracy Chapman would be ‘just down the road’ giving a concert in Roseland. So we went. He secured some last-minute tickets and we arrived just in time for her ‘set’ to begin. It was a great night – strangely hypnotic – and the lighting was mesmerising. Tracy Chapman performed most of the songs on her new album ‘Telling stories’.

She did not play her early song ‘Subcity’ which was not surprising but nonetheless I would have liked to hear it. I would have liked to hear it because a few blocks north of me a kind of cardboard city existed. It was just up the road from the site of the John Jay College of the City University, New York. (That’s where I was teaching.) Cardboard city was a version of Tracy Chapman’s Subcity. This was a place where people barely survived – barely existed. This was ground zero minus 1. This was the underclass.

Whilst I was in New York I thought a great deal about the various lives played out by the people of the great city. I thought about the bejewelled beauties going in and out of Trump tower and I thought of the contrasts – and of my students who were coming to the College from the distant parts of Queens and Brooklyn, the Bronx and even further – from Philadelphia and so on. Things were not easy for them. Life, as Tracy Chapman said was ‘hard’. It was hard for many of my students and some of them thought that the dream was over; in its place, there’s was to be a never-ending struggle.

I was reminded again – now almost two decades later – of Tracy and her ‘Subcity’ when I was shopping in my home town: Outside a supermarket was a man – a destitute man – arranged on cardboard – and accompanied by his dear sweet dog. He looked in a really bad way. And all round him in the car park were the most superb cars you could ever imagine. It’s strange that this is the way things are. This man is part of our own subcity; And, here in the UK, subcity morphs into, overlaps with, the shabby desolate unkempt places (‘communities’) up and down the whole of the land.

As I walked home from the supermarket I recalled my days in New York and the early songs of Tracy Chapman. And I sang a few lines from the song that, once again, played its tune to me: I sang:

Won’t you please, please give the prime minister my honest regards for disregarding me …’

Here are some verses from Tracy’s original lyrics: It’s a good song and perhaps we should give it a higher profile than we currently do.

People say it doesn’t exist
‘Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say there’s too much crime in these city streets
My sentiments exactly
Government and big business hold the purse strings
When I worked I worked in the factories
I’m at the mercy of the world
I guess I’m lucky to be alive

Here in subcity life is hard
We can’t receive any government relief
Won’t you please, please give the President my honest regards
For disregarding me

They say we’ve fallen through the cracks
They say the system works
But we won’t let it help
I guess they never stop to think
We might just want handouts
Way to make an honest living
Living – this ain’t living …

… What did I do deserve this
Had my trust in god
Worked everyday of my life
Thought I had some guarantees
That’s what I thought
At least that’s what I thought

I’d like to please give the President my honest regards
Oh, for disregarding me

PS: The photos above and below are taken from an early open-air concert in which Tracy Chapman performed. It is not Roseland.

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