Where You Are Born

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It’s called an accident of birth. That’s not quite right. The accident comes from where you happen to be born and what family you are born into. It stopped being an accident a long time ago.

Last week I spent some time at a school not so far away from the ‘challenging’ academy I had spent six months at.  Although the academy has an official Ofsted rating of ‘Good’, it is anything but a good and easy ride for its teachers. Indeed, it’s quite a rocky road through each day.

The staff who work (successfully) at challenging schools have their coping mechanisms.

They know how to settle a group in a manner that doesn’t place undue stress on the students or themselves. Worksheets are good and they are printed to order in a way to provide endless differentiation. A Powerpoint is also useful because it allows for a decent amount of copying from the board (much better than chalk and talk). On the whole, a settled class is a good class. My attempts at engaging students often fell flat as I tried to get them up and out of their seats in order to participate in collaborative activities.

They didn’t like to move. They didn’t want to deviate from the norm.

In my finite wisdom I have decided that I am not right for institutions of that ilk. The way I like to teach draws reactions of dread from a number of students and other teachers. I want a talking class that works together and gets involved. Worksheets are for making small fires with. Powerpoints are for making monotonous presentations with.

The new wants to enable social mobility. That means moving up from the lower strata of society towards the higher stratas. In truth, it also should mean moving downwards as well. It doesn’t.

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Even in relatively modest income bands there is a distinct difference between those accidentally born on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ and those that are not. There are boundaries in the geography of towns and cities and those boundaries play a definite role in the way in which our children get educated, and move on in life. The school that I worked at last week was as far away from the academy as one could get within a few short miles.

It was a ‘leafy’ school. The fecundity of nature (I love fecund) was everywhere on the day that I passed through it gates. Grass, trees, the buzz of bees, and relaxed freedoms were everywhere. The teachers mooched on their way to lessons whilst the students dawdled purposely and without the obligatory intimidations. In the classroom things progress in much the same manner with the ever-vigilant eyes of the eagle being replaced with a relaxed wander, a polite reminder, and a word of encouragement.

The students (most of them) seem to come to school in order to learn rather than to escape wayward home-lives. Here, they have come to do what is generally the accepted purpose for schooling. And they tend to do it without too much fuss. There are those children whose parents have managed to relocate themselves. These are the ‘more aspirational students’, I was told by one teacher. They know where they have come from and they want to move on, social-mobility in action.They are like the children of refugees who have escaped war zones, persecution and poverty.

It just seems that their journey to a better world is paradoxically more difficult that moving across continents.  

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Accidents of birth ought not to become tragedies.

 

 

Why Study Books?

via Why Study Books?

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‘England is sick, and…English literature must save it. The Churches have failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, above all, to save our souls and to heal the State.’ 

George Gordon  Professor of Literature  Oxford University 1922

During the course of my life, I have always believed that to be the case. If God could no longer save souls, then books should. In thinking this, I was not the originator of this idea. Since the nineteenth century, when the influence of the church began to wane, it became obvious that something had to step in to save the day. And it was with a certain biblical irony that books became the vehicle of choice.

Life is a route-planner.

We start our journeys at some particular time and place and finish them at another. Life is similar to a time-out from the general tedium of the omnipresent tedium of not living. But, whatever journey we are on, is never going to be an easy one. Life is best with things that beset life, namely life and death and suffering and the Conservative Party. Without these things, it is difficult to claim that one has ever lived, especially if one is already dead meaning that ones opinion no longer counts as only a very few can hear it. It’s a shame because I think that the dead are possibly in possession of more wisdom than the not dead. If you knew how you were going to die, a wise person would probably do something else on that day. Simple wisdom for simple thinkers.

I honestly don’t know where my route-planner has got to, these days. I think that I can remember having it when I set off. Indeed, I think I can remember setting a destination, somewhere like ‘Contentment’, ‘Peace of Mind’, or ‘Moderately Successful With a Beautiful Wife, Wonderful Children, and a Volvo Estate’. The last one always seemed to accompany the ones that went before.  The problem with these destinations is that they cannot be found on traditional maps. The route-planner just instructed me to point my car in any direction of my whim and then set off to see where I could get to before I died.

At the moment, I am here.

Here is an existential crisis. It is a place betwixt and between. A campsite in a town that one never planned to visit. Sounds good, but I have been here before.

Each and every year (not quite as we sometimes decide to ‘staycate’), my wife and I take the girls on a family holiday. The holiday usually involves packing up lots of things: bikes, tents, sleeping bags, phrase books, and a selection of real books to read when we are not doing the activity ‘thing’.  We do tend to have a destination, but go out of our way to not plan the trip. We regard the journey to our destination as being just as potentially enjoyable as the end product.

We aim to be relatively aimless and land on campsites that we have never visited before in a bid to be random adventurers. What does happen, always happens, is that we pitch-up in a place that slowly reveals itself to be familiar. We are like frogs that have a road map implanted in their DNA. No matter how much time has elapsed since their last journey, no matter how many generations have passed, they still take the same route; inexplicably. And so it is with us.

Ah, Ah! Those knowing human beings would say. Man is not a frog. Man is a work of divine creation. Man needs guidance in the way that mere Anura do not. It would not be proper for many of us to get ‘squished on Life’s highways’. Ah, Ah! I respond. I agree. But then I would point out that I was using the biblical device of hiding a lesson within a story.

And that is my point. Literature is scripture with a number of letter changes. From both, we find out what we need and ought to know about the touring holiday that we like to call Life. As God probably no longer exists, as we can’t be bothered with him/her, we need a new type of route-planner, one that is fit for our cultural needs.

Here are a few suggestions:

             THESE                       OR                  THIS

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The Promise

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They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen. The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana. Those who had caught sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out and their flesh cut into strips for salting.

When the wind was in the east a smell came across the harbour from the shark factory; but today there was only the faint edge of the odour because the wind had backed into the north and then dropped off and it was pleasant and sunny on the Terrace.

 

I have no marlin waiting to be butchered.

More than forty years have floated by since my visit to the library and my borrowing of the book. Hemingway’s tome never returned to its place on the shelf, taking up residence on mine instead. It still sits there and so does the scent of that brave fish that fought and died.

The sharks have been fattened over the last four decades. Each of my dawns are always followed by failure. I must be getting good at this. In truth, I hate failing. The only thing I hate more than failure is accepting failure; not trying to do battle with the thing that throws scorn. That’s why I keep on trying. I get up in the morning and climb into my skiff and set out for the most promising of vacant sea that I can dream of, and then I cast the bait.

My bait is myself.

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I cast myself into the empty blue and pray that something will bite. I pray to a God that I no longer believe in. I pray to a sea that is ungiving. I pray to whatever governs chance and opportunity and I pray to the stray readers who drift past my words.

I pray that this last launching will not bring sharks.

 

 

The Importance Of Life (Jackets)

From Read After Burnout. com

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It is easy when you are beaten, he thought. I never knew how easy it was. And what beat you, he thought.

‘Nothing,’ he said aloud. ‘I went out too far.’

 Ernest Hemingway   The Old Man and The Sea

 

I first read this book when I was about fourteen years of age. Not a prodigious reader which was something that came out of the fact that I was a struggling reader – a dyslexic. With school then becoming a place of false hope, a victim of insidious bullying that threatened to break my young resolve, I visited the school library like one who would visit Lourdes.

Somehow, just the act of pilgrimage could do it. I browsed the bookshelves in the hope of divine intervention. My normal choice was a history or geography book that gave me facts, packages of knowledge, small chunks that could be digested easily. I was not good at reading novels that would demand days of attention or maybe even weeks. I was a poor reader who struggled over every word. In class, there was no escaping when the teacher asked you to read. My failing attempts were met with snorts and ridicule from my classmates (oxymoron if ever there was one). The scars that were left from those days still itch today as I stand in front of classes of students who see books and reading as irrelevant antiquities in an age that sees the magic of the internet as something as wondrous as sliced bread. I am sure that I would have been one of these if it had not been for the pressure from my dad, Romeo and Juliet and The Old Man and The Sea.

I started reading Hemingway’s novella today and was struck by how fresh it all was. Time sits inside books waiting for somebody special to release it. I was back to the tragedy of man, the eternal effort to fight forces and events that cannot be controlled. Sometimes, shit happens. If you are unlucky, like Santiago, shit happens more frequently. Now, I don’t know where I stand on the fate thing, but it may as well serve as a metaphor for the whole explanation of happening. If it ever happened, it was fate. If a tile fell off a roof and cleaved through your head, it was fate. If a tree blew down on top of my car with me inside it, rendering me a cripple for life, it was fate. If I then went on to tackle my unfortunate brush with fate by writing numerous novels that thousands of people read, it was fate again.

Lottery wins, cancer, getting married…yup, you’ve got it, fate. I ought to alliterate fate with an expletive because it’s so fucking greedy and so, so much in need of recognition.

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Fate writes stories before they are told. It’s sitting here beside me now, nudging me with a wink of the eye that tells me that it told me so. Yes, and when I began reading The Old Man and The Sea, I thought of fate.

 

Trying To Make Sense

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I wanted to be Jesus. Come forth, Brian. The stubborn bugger wouldn’t move; he was in a mood with me.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered so that my mum wouldn’t hear me.

I wasn’t really sorry about what I was apologising for but I was sorry that he managed to die before we had properly worked it through. You see, we had argued some months prior to this and had only recently, grudgingly shrugged of the disagreement. And disagreement it certainly was. As our arguments went, this was top by a long score. Every single family factor was brought to the table and every last piece was served in ballistic fashion.

Caroline had started sitting forward in her chair as I spoke. She was avidly listening but her stance had changed from counsellor to interested participant. She had become the audience and would occasionally stop me to ask for explanation of events and back-stories. Back-stories, I had in abundance.

My dad was born the second youngest of a family of twelve. He had ten brothers and one older sister. By the time he was ten, his father had left the family in search of work. He never returned so it fell upon his mother to bring up the sons. The daughter had married and moved into her own home. At the age of twelve, my dad had to go around to his elder sister’s house with a note. The note informed her that their mother had died suddenly. Norah, the sister, was obliged to take the other siblings under her wing. I gather that she did so with a stoic quality that was common of that age. The war had just ended so there were a lot of people in similar circumstances. War had taken many fathers in the field of

combat whilst enemy bombings had taken a significant number of those who remained at home. A brave new world was at hand and the ones who faced it did so with uncertainty and trepidation. Nevertheless, the worst was over.

I have stories that he told me about his childhood but there aren’t many. I know that a bomb once landed in their back garden after a raid. They discovered it the next morning and put ashes over the offending intruder until the right authority came to deal with it. Ashes? Odd choice.

So the years that followed were growing up years. He was a bit of a dare-devil and a tearaway. He played rugby to a decent standard. He told me of a brief relationship he had with a married woman and about the ensuing fight he had with her husband. In fact, he had two fights: one with the husband and the husband’s mate in which my dad was beaten up and one when he hunted down his cowardly assailant some months later and gave him a return beating. I was proud of that part of him. After the war he went to technical college even though he had passed his 11 plus. He was bright, gregarious and sharp as a knife.

“You sound as if you’re proud of your father.”

“I suppose it does. But…” I had to stop and think. “But actually, I often think that I never knew him.”

I’ve noticed with myself in the last couple of years that I have drawn further within the older I get. My wife has noticed it as well. She has told me that I never talk about anything.

“Why do you think that is?”

“What’s the point? It doesn’t solve anything. Nobody notices. It’s like the stuff that people say after a sudden death, make the most of every second because we never know when it’s our turn. The thing is that it is always going to come around, our time. Somebody has just died since I’ve said that. Seize the day! What I want to know is how we are supposed to seize it. What are we supposed to be seizing?”

“Do you think they may mean that we should do what we really feel that we should do?”

Caroline was coaxing out more explanation.

“I think it’s just something that people say as a comforter. When somebody has died, we have a desire that it must make sense. We aren’t just born to die. We are supposed to be creatures that have a higher purpose. It’s supposed to have meaning. What if it was all just nonsense? What if every single thing that we do, every series of events that snake around us, everybody we have ever loved or even hated for that matter, are just accidents of chance. If that is the case, then we are all lost without even knowing it.”

“What do you think?”

She asked me this question probably aware that I didn’t have an answer. My mind was tumbling with newly sprouted hypothesis but there was nothing firm about it. Mental masturbation is what it was, creating questions and running down pathways, not to reach a climax of understanding but just to play around with the thoughts. The truth of it was that I liked this after-accident evaluation.

Part of me was dead and the rest was floating above the scene trying to make sense of it. Nevertheless, just the act of trying to make sense made sense.

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To Be Is To Do.

To Do Is To Be.

Do Be Do Be Do.

Cognito ergo sum.

 

Read After Burnout. com

Check the link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?k=read+after+burnout.+com

 

Reading Cultural Texts As Scripture…

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One of my greatest friends is The Stand by Stephen King.

The Stand was first published in 1978 and I first read it in 1980. Since then, he has edited it about twice and rewritten aspects to reflect the change in the cultural environment of the United States.

When I was a student, I can remember mentioning to my English Literature lecturer that I thought that King was an excellent writer. The Lecturer, smiled at me with something that weighed a little over a tonne of condescension. She laughed as she stated that King was not a real writer. I didn’t laugh or smile.

I never talked to her much after that and would bluff my way through her seminars in a manner that was apparent to all and sundry. Fortunately for me, this lecturer was only there for a year before returning to the States. She did teach me one thing, FECUNDITYwhich she used lavishly in her description of Gabriella Garcia Marques’ One Hundred Years of Solitude– a true writer. I still have to read that book.

The Stand is an old friend. I read it every five or six years. I go back to it in the same way one might go back to the place in which you grew up. My affair with everything apocalyptical probably came from King, well some of it anyway. The landscape of my youth was clouded by the coming apocalypse. It never came though. There was the threat of nuclear war, Aids, over-population, and ISIS (so called), but it has never ended. Neither has my love of The Stand.

I picked up a copy of this book just before the weekend and started to read it once again. Some people never go back to books once they have read them. Some people never review a film once it has been watched. I do both. The mind-readers out there will tell you that it will be connected with my psychological hoarding, a need to never let go of the past. I believe this to be true, as this book testifies. For somebody who can launch into new experiences and, as a consequence,  leave behind old ones, I am a strange contradiction. But there are artefacts that I treasure; books, books, books.

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The latest edition of The Stand has new chapters and some new characters. All of these are peripheral to the main events yet they work in a way to freshen up the novel for a new audience. Where King falls down a little is where there are obvious anachronisms that have been born out of temporal revision.

My favourite character, Larry Underwood, a musician about to make it big before Captain Trips seizes his platform, is mixing his tracks with Neil Diamond. Now, I am not one to put Neil Diamond down, but a new audience wouldn’t really know him. If they had heard of him, it would be in the same way that would have heard of somebody once called Noah. That to one side, the book gripped me once again and I spent huge swathes of the weekend lost in its many pages. Once more, I was back to the time when I was eighteen, still wet behind the ears, hoping beyond reasonable hope that I would amount to something in my life. I was afflicted with that good old Jesus syndrome.

 

The Stand is like reading me and the time that has gone into making this person who I am today???

That’s ellipsis with question marks! Ain’t that something?

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My favourite characters in the book are Larry Underwood and Nick …  Larry because he is a tragic figure who is haunted by his own doubtful character and who wants to be good, but often does bad things. “You ain’t no good guy!” He hears from women who would have been complete strangers if he hadn’t slept with them. I like Larry because he is a little bit like I was when I was young, self-centred, hedonistic, and a dreamer. He wanted  to do the right thing in a world which was not right. He failed. So, he just went along with the process and carved out his own little stretch of land where he could hide from his troubles and the eyes of his judges.

Larry is an artist who has always struggled to be heard properly. He hasn’t had the breaks and when one sashays his way it is blown away by a combination of genetic engineering and ‘the end of days’ conducted by Randall Flag. Old Randy is the Devil in-definite-carnate. And poor old Larry, and the rest of the world, is swept away by this janitor from Hell.

Larry is a guy who has always been good, at heart, but indifferent in actions. The last stand of good against evil is one in which he will play a major role, surprising himself and others with his bravery and selflessness. At the end of it all, Larry is a “good guy”, but dies in the process. So, is this Jesus thing in my DNA or has it been placed there by the writers I worship?

If I was a lawyer, I would possibly say that this particular case ought to go to litigation. Through their poetry and prose, these writers have led me all the way along a narrative that quite possibly would not have existed if they hadn’t caught my imagination and used their works as pseudo scriptures for a half-wit like me to believe in.

Or is it that I was always predisposed to this type of existence and that I chose the literature that best reflected me?

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Thank goodness that I never liked Jane Austin – although with zombies it is a lovely treat.