Saturday 16 November 2013

Time to become literature activists: doing and thinking

This is the text (more or less) of the talk that I gave at the RSA.

You can see me giving the talk here:

Doing and Thinking

My mother was a primary school teacher but when she was in her early forties she took study leave to do a diploma in primary education at the Institute of Education with a person who for us at home, seemed unfathomable and mysterious: a man called Christian Schiller.

I was around 16 and the first immediate consequence of my mother’s studies, was that I found that I had to get my own tea. The next was that my mother started to talk in unfathomable and mysterious phrases. These would surface sometimes after she had spent half an hour or an hour or so staring into the middle distance. I remember coming home from school once, the house was dark and I thought no one was in. I opened the door to the living room and saw that my mother was sitting there and she hadn’t turned the light on. I asked her if she was OK and she said she was fine. Later I heard her say to my father: ‘It’s all a matter of doing and thinking’. My brother, the family satirist, had tuned into this way of talking and he’d started a new comedy routine where he would pretend to be my mother, look into the distance and say, ‘Harold, it’s all a matter of ‘being and seeing’, no, Harold, what it is is ‘talking and walking’’ and so on.

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. My notion of what ideas or knowledge were, was wrapped up in senior school type problems like the downfall of Antony and Cleopatra or the unification of Italy. To my mind-set at the time, a phrase like ‘doing and thinking’ wouldn’t or couldn’t capture anything that I thought worth knowing.

And yet, for the last fifty years, I can see that whether I knew it or not, the phrase has been some kind of pole star for me. I grant straightaway that there is a problem in the idea that you might be locked into following a guide that you don’t know you’re being guided by, but let’s leave that for a moment.

So, from the vantage point of now, what do I think my mother was on about?

I think my mother was expressing what might be called the activist thesis which in summary - or ‘in my own words’ as the best teachers always said to us - goes something like this:

In activity of any kind - imagine throwing a ball, or squeezing a sponge - we get our minds and bodies to go through actions. The way this involves our minds seems to involve such things as memory, recall, observation, response, reflection, interpretation, evaluation as well as a synthesis of some or all of these. Yet none of these is entirely separate from whatever it is that our bodies are doing. So even as we say a word like ‘observation’, we need to understand that it means observing something from the inside of what it is our body is doing. It then follows that if we do new and challenging things, we develop our ability or capacity to do more thinking.

As my mother was a primary school teacher, she was much concerned by the environment of the classroom. This I know because whenever we went on walks, she said she’d ‘collect bits’ to take into school. She was of course, interested in the collective of children she was in charge of for the year, and how they could all make advances in that time. For her, I know, it was especially important that it was ‘all’ the children.

So, as anyone knows who has been in that situation or anything like it, a teacher has to address the matter of how this group of children co-exist and co-operate. At which point another of my mother’s principles comes to play a crucial part, as expressed by her or my brother or both as ‘talking and doing and thinking’.

And as she sat in dark and amalgamated what she was learning from Christian Schiller and from her fellow students with her 12 years or so of teaching experience, she included in the mix that her flock had to feel that they were allowed or entitled to experiment with what they could do, with what they could talk about and with what they could think.

So let me cut to the chase, for her - and people like her - the route to learning - or if you prefer - understanding - involved the idea that children would try out things, talk about them, do them, discuss them, think about them - and though I’ve separated these processes out, they might do these simultaneously or in conjunction with each other.

Now I should say that I didn’t ever have the conversation with my mother where we talked about all this. I left for university and got involved with trying to solve the problems of the world. I have no regrets about that, though I regret that I think there was a part of me that thought that my mother wasn’t as wise or as quick-witted as my father; and so when I came back in the holidays or on visits after I had left home, it turned out that I ended up getting in a talk-huddle with my father. Then by the time I was 30, she was gone.

She left behind papers, stories, poems and a book she wrote with my father about the education of primary school children but I didn’t ever have a real face to face chat about all this, and she didn’t live long enough to see what has happened to education.

Even so, when I look back, say, all the way to when I was at university, I can see that there must have been part of me that knew that if I wanted to understand something, I had to ‘do’, I had to co-operate and I had to talk. To take one obvious example: Shakespeare. I loved reading close textual examinations of Shakespeare plays. I still do. And there are thousands of them. But I have to concede that very few of the very scholarly ones are about what it means to make a production or what it means to sit in a theatre (or any space) and watch a production. It’s as if there is some kind of invisible hierarchy between a gold standard, bona fide analysis - which is about the written form of the play - and there is something below that which is less serious, and this is about such things as: how you might turn that script into a live play, or how and why a person experiences the passing of events and thoughts of the play in the real time of a performance. Interesting but less important.

To give you one small glimpse of what I mean. A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to see Othello at the National. I have to say that I found it an overwhelming experience. Looking back on it, I can see that bit by bit I was being wound up tighter and tighter so that when we reached the final unravelling at the end, after the killings, and Othello realises that Iago has engineered the whole situation, (or depending on how you look at it, Othello realises that he was only too willing to believe what Iago suggested to him) it became unbearable. Then, just as Aristotle suggested thousands of years ago, as a consequence of that explosion of feeling, and in reflection afterwards, it’s possible to ask questions like, ‘What if Othello hadn’t believed Iago?’, or ‘What if the bit inside us all that’s a bit like Iago, or a bit like Othello could be suppressed, or avoided, wouldn’t we and the world be better?’

But - and this is crucial - for all this to work as I’ve suggested, it took a particularly brilliant production. When Othello looked across at Iago and realised what he realised, and when in the physical real time and space of that moment, we realised that he realised, the script could do its work. Or as my mother would say, doing and thinking.

Now, that wasn’t me out there acting - if only - but at university, I did quite a lot of ‘doing’ around Shakespeare and other plays and the more I did it, the more I reckoned I could get to a level of understanding about plays and drama that I could not get only or purely from reading the scholarly stuff. What any performer knows, is that the script can be as good as can be, but it has to work on the night. Voice, movement, looks, glances and a hundred other elements. Did I absorb that from my mother?

Around that time and for a few years more, I started to write poems. I thought I was writing wry little pieces about my childhood that adults would find interesting. The trick I was playing with, is that the narrator in the poem doesn’t know as much about himself as the reader. (Dramatic irony, I told myself.) Again, I had arrived at this point by churning up what I was reading - into things that I wanted to write. Writing (or ‘doing’, if you like) was in a way a kind of criticism.

In fact, there didn’t seem to be many adults who were interested other than a schools radio producer and an editor children’s books. These were for children, they both said. So the poems became a book, whereupon I started being invited into schools, libraries and on teaching training courses to read the poems. To start off with, I did this in a rather non-doing way. On one occasion I arrived at a school, Princess Frederika, in north London, and the deputy headteacher said that the children were very excited and they were all waiting for me. I thought he meant a class was waiting for me, but he took me through an arch and there was the whole school. 300 of them. Mr McElaine, the teacher, said, ‘Boys and girls, here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for,’ and they all roared. I suspect that they roared not so much because it was me but that they liked roaring. So I hid. I hid behind my book and started to read, in my reading-a-poem voice.

“The ship in the dock, was at the end of the trip

The man on board was the captain of the ship

The name of the man was Old Ben Brown

And he played the ukelele with his trousers down’.

Now, when you perform in front of three hundred children, you usually have about 30 seconds to prove yourself and if you don’t or can’t, it’s not that they’re rude or start heckling, they just start getting interested in other stuff - their shoes, their hair, their ears.

And this is what started happening.

I looked across to Mr McErlaine and he looked horrified. He had read the poems off the page and interpreted that I was some kind of livewire, who could electrify his school.

So, he seized the moment and said to the children

‘Noooo, it doesn’t go like that, does it children?’

And they roared back at him,


And then he did something I’ve never forgotten, he danced the poem. He read it with the whole of his body and the whole school joined in moving and singing the poem:

“The ship in the dock was at the end of its trip

The man on board was the captain of the ship

The name of the man was Old Ben Brown

and he played the ukelele with his trousers - DOWN

he played the ukelele with his trousers - DOWN. “

In that one moment, I learned that if I was going to make contact with a live audience with the words I had written on to a page, I would have to do some serious ‘doing’, I would have to dance the poems too. And if I did that, children would do that too. They wouldn’t just read poems. They would ‘do’ poems.

Much more recently, I’ve been involved in writing a book about a particular aspect of language: the alphabet. Now, another side of being a child of my parents is that language was treated in our home not only as something functional, something expressive, and something reflective, but also as something endlessly provisional and endlessly malleable. My parents exchanged English words with words, expressions and songs taken from Yiddish, French, German, Latin and Italian. They exchanged their accents with experiments in American - (my father had been in the US army) Welsh (my father had been evacuated there) . They implied in how they spoke that language was a resource - no - more than that - it was a playground. When our dishwasher broke down, my mother called it a ‘wishdasher’. When she saw what a mess our bedroom was, she called it a ‘mishadamonk’. When we asked her what a ‘mishadamonk’ was, she said it was our bedroom. When either or both of my parents heard or read or said something that seemed to them pithy or ironic or significant, they cut and pasted it into their conversations. My mother said, ‘Ask your father what he’s doing and tell him to stop it.’ It was requoted a thousand times.

I learned that I could think of language this way too. I could make it and remake it, quote it and edit it, make substitutions and additions, switch between accents, dialects and languages. And all this activity was not a matter of being clever-clever. It was again a matter of doing and thinking. By doing all that stuff, it was a way of thinking about language. At the heart of it, is a question about who language belongs to.

A good deal of education implies that language belongs outside of yourself: it belongs to the invisible know-alls who set and mark tests and exams; to invisible writers of dictionaries; to the invisible writers of the scripts that teachers appear to be using in order to teach - especially when they say things like, “I would prefer not to be doing this, but we have to...”

It’s a nonsense. Language belongs to all of us because we’re the ones who use it and change it. It is at times a battleground with all kinds of instructions and demands being issued whilst some contest these, while millions carry on regardless. At times it’s a place of exchange, borrowing and lending between groups. The activity of people leads them to put language to use as part of those activities. Doing and thinking and talking.

And yet, even if I know all this, I can find myself caught out. As I started work on the book about the alphabet, my first feeling was that the alphabet was something fixed. After all, people call the alphabet I’ve used to write this talk with, ‘the Roman alphabet’ and there it is carved into stone on Trajan’s column in Rome. You can’t be more fixed than that...other than that the Romans wrote the word ‘Julius’ as ‘IVLIVS’ all in what we would call ‘capital letters’. We don’t write like that anymore. So unchangeable but changeable. And who did the changing? Who thought up the little letters, and the letters ‘J’, ‘U’ and ‘W’? Julius Caesar? Elizabeth I? Napoleon?

Well, it took me four hundred pages to find out, but these changes and many more happened because, more often than not, the doers in the actual material business of getting writing on to paper and screens - scribes, printers, compositors and people sitting at terminals, decided through doing, talking and thinking that change was a good idea or even a necessity.

Maybe my mother would like that.

So I believe that we not only all make and change language but that we have the right and necessity to find out how it works by playing with it. Most classrooms I go into have a poster on the wall of specially good words or ‘wow’ words as they are often called. I am always curious about this. Where do these words come from? What’s so good about them? Why do good words come from outside the children? Who decided that these particular words should be ‘wow’ words and that ‘gloomy’ is better than ‘dark’. Again, perhaps informed by my mother, I always suggest that teachers could create a magpie wall, where children and the teacher put up words and phrases,things that parents have said, lines from songs, stories, poems, newspaper headlines that show interesting, exciting, odd or intriguing use of language. As I often say, poets may or may not be people with imagination - whatever that means - but we are also people on the hunt for a good way to begin a poem. Looking for things said, written or sung ‘out there’ is as good a way as any. It’s a way of ‘doing’ language instead of just receiving it.

Yesterday I was at a teachers conference. We were talking about ‘reading for pleasure’. It seems to be a good idea. There are vast quantities of research from all over the world which show that when children have the opportunities to choose what they want to read and have time to read it, the benefits are enormous. So, though we call it something soft and cosy - reading for pleasure - it has gloriously serious consequences. Governments know this. They even put it into the kinds of documents they turn out to show that they are not entirely dominated and obsessed with measuring, classifying, selecting and segregating children. Then they do nothing about it. And get on spending millions on not reading for pleasure.

Reading for pleasure is a kind of ‘doing’ too. The reader is active about choosing, browsing and selecting, and then active with playing with the possibilities in a text. More often than not, readers for pleasure will talk about what they read. They pass on their enthusiasms and raise queries, ask questions and try to answer them.

That’s why it gets banned. At the teachers conference yesterday, a teacher told us that she had been told not to spend time doing such things because it was a ‘waste of time’. Another told us that if she went on doing role play around stories she would be graded as ‘unsatisfactory’, which is a short cut to being slung out.

This week, I decided that I am going to stop calling myself a poet or a writer or a broadcaster. I’m going to call myself a literature activist.

I hope my mother would like that.

No, I’ll rephrase all that. I’m going to suggest that all children and all teachers become literature activists.

I’m sure that my mother would like that even more.