Category Archives: books

Hare Brain, Turtle Mind

Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain, Turtle Mind revolutionised the way I saw the world. I was a primary school teacher when I read it and everything he wrote in that book made sense. Certainly it made much more sense than the rubbish I was bombarded with from successive education ministers.  Claxton’s essential message is this: that the mind is more absorbent, more elastic when it is not stressed, tested, questioned, or rebuked. We don’t know what we know. That by being relaxed and not uptight we can access knowledge denied to us when agitated.

Since the book was published education policy has moved in completely the opposite direction than Claxton advocates. Testing children has become the most important weapon in the English and Welsh education armoury.  And if a subject cannot be easily tested, then it is considered, almost by definition, peripheral. Meanwhile those children who are good at tests continue to do well, those that have strengths that are maybe not so easily testable, fail.

When the tests are reported to parents, used as a means to assess schools and teachers, then the pressure exerted makes it almost impossible for pupils to learn in the manner Caxton advocates.

And those children who are good at tests go on to become the bureaucrats of the future and uphold the regime in which they have succeeded. Often these very same people are the least able to consider any other means of running an education system.

Claxton’s book led me to other writers who have explored a similar theme. There are many of them whose books are read by teachers and parents and whose message brings hope.  There’s Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings , David Eagleman’s  Incognito, Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. These are all significant people whose books are a summary of a life’s work. But do minister’s take notice? Nope.

Despite the growing evidence to suggest that education policy is utterly misguided, the same philosophy of education predominates. As I write the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is embarking on introducing tests in Scottish primary schools. Even in Scotland, a country the ONS describes as the best educated in Europe, the government is concerned over international comparisons. In Wales, the former education minister, Leighton Andrews, staked his reputation on reforms (largely based on a dreary an unimaginative diet of testing and comparisons) but then resigned on a trumped up unrelated matter ‘of principle’ before he could be held to account when those same reforms failed to work.

International comparisons (for example the PISA tests) put pressure on administrations. Ministers don’t want to be seen to fail. They want to maintain their lucrative positions and their power. They panic. The panic is contagious. Schools are inundated with new policies, new curricula, new tests. Heads panic. Teachers get stressed and panic. Pupils get stressed and panic.  And this, according to Claxton is the perfect recipe for failure.

The system itself is failing.  There are those students for whom the testing system works. But for many, and these are often the creative thinkers, the dreamers, the innovators, it is not just failing them, it is actively undermining them. Claxton’s book, and the message it carries, should be read by everyone with a stake in the future.

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My Struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s  A Death in the Family  is the first of six volumes provocatively titled My Struggle.  This first volume deals with Knausgaard’s early youth, and the death of his father but it’s the way Knausgaaard sets about this that makes it so evocative.  He wants to include everything; and in the same way as Borges’ Funes the Memorious never forgets anything he sees, nor does Knausgaard.  Or like Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels record the surface of the world in labourious detail, so Knausgaard’s preference is to present us with the quotidian and the incidental,  but it’s the accumulative effect of layers and layers of this that makes the novel so powerful, immersing the reader in Knausgaard’s soupy universe.  There are moments when I couldn’t help but feel I was walking beside him, or that he is writing about my life, certainly his descriptions of his first experiments with alcohol, his first crushes, the disappointing parties, the dreadful bands he played in and the music he listened to. And Knaausgaard is a pitiful mess, sometimes, certainly he is no hero, and his inability to raise himself above the everyday, something he occasionally does with philosophical digressions, is somehow charming.  He imbues everything, every gesture, whether opening a bottle of beer, rolling a cigarette, taking something out of a cupboard, laying a table, pouring a drink, with such filmic observational precision.    ‘What you see every day is what you never see,’ he says, but Knausgaard captures every detail.  It’s no wonder his writing reminds me of  Ingmar Bergman; the slow, slow pace of things, the deliberation, the angst.  This is full of angst. Poor Karl Ove. He cries throughout the second half of the novel, sometimes with embarrassment, sometimes without fear. But crying is good, and perhaps if Karl Ove weren’t so sensitive, he wouldn’t have produced such a fine book.  It is a masterpiece of its own genre, kitchen sink, real time, plotless and written in such simple language, it sometimes feels less than what is.  Because it is remarkable, and, if I still feel the same after I’ve read the second and third of the six volumes of My Struggle, this ranks alongside some of the most astonishing literary achievements of our times.

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Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’

I don’t understand poetry.  But I’m not sure I know what I mean by the word understand.  Poetry doesn’t get me anywhere. I never feel as if I’ve learnt something that I didn’t know before, although I wonder what I mean by know. Sometimes a feeling is captured and held there and for a few seconds at least you think you know what it means.  This isn’t to suggest that the poet meant the same things.  The poet can only do so much.  Yet Paterson’s Rain exists in a class of poetry that does everything for me. I find it intellectually interesting but it has an emotional, almost physiological impact, it gets me in the gut.

‘We come from nothing and return to it’ is the first line of Phantom V. It’s not a particularly illuminating nor original thought and Paterson puts it quite baldly: but this thought is threaded through other poems in this collection with far more nuance and subtlety – and when his own children are the subject matter, the poetry becomes fragile, beautiful and permeated with aching grief. In The Circle Paterson’s son struggles to paint a picture, but at the same time his water jar captures an echo of the universe. In placing the child in such a vast cosmography, his efforts are simultaneously futile and colossal. The Swing touches on a similar theme – the moment of a child’s existence between two eternities:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.
I’ve never read anything so gracefully poignant. My favourite poem of the collection (The Rain at Sea) I am not close to understanding: its power is its mystery.

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Ramblings and Digressions

I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.

I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.

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The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.

I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E  at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.

Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.

I was drinking alone  in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed  good company.  I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.

I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.

The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House.  I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself.  It was his 87th birthday.

“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.

But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books.  I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.

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Finnegans Wake

After I left college and spent a year at a table in a flat in Acton reading Ulysses.  It’s a difficult book, riddled with pastiche that is difficult to penetrate.  But it is a novel of novels and if anything, it shows what can be done with a story.  And it’s a day in the life – June 16th, I forget which year.  The hero wanders around Dublin, looking for his dad.  I read it, as well as all the books I could find that would help me understand it, decode it, unravel it.  Friends went off to South America and Japan, I stayed in Acton, above the glaziers, reading Ulysses.  I finished it, too.  If you have a year to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

But this blog isn’t about Ulysses, its about Joyce’s other massive work, Finnegans Wake.  (n.b. – no apostrophe).

If I ever take a gap decade, possibly in my sixties, I shall endeavour to read Finnegans Wake.  I have had several goes, but never reached the end.  Not that there is an end.  I have a copy in which I’ve written the place where I have attempted it: London, Wexford, Newport, Mid Wales, each about three years apart.

The first 200 pages are thumbed and littered with marginalia, then, like stars fading at dawn, they disappear and the pages look younger, healthier, unadulterated.

Finnegans Wake is written in Joyce’s own language, a sticklebrick, portmanteau goobledegook.  (His notes for the book he called Scribbledehobble).

Excerpt:

“Or, if he was always striking up funny funereels… with tambarins and cantoridettes soturning around his eggshill rockcoach their dance McCaper in retrophoebia… to the ra, the ra, the ra, the ra, langsome heels and langsome toesis, attended to by a mutter and doffer duffmatt baxingmotch and… pszozlers pszinging… Ho, Time Timeagen, Wake!

It’s a funny book, bristling with puns and madness.  Read aloud it makes more sense.  It’s also full of codes, repetition, wheels within wheels and the rhythms and chants of music.

If Ulysses is a day in the life, Finnegans Wake is a night in the life, or a nightmare.  The central character HCE, is seen everywhere “Here Comes Everyone” “Haveth Childers Everywhere” and so on.

There is no beginning and no end, the book begins in mid sentence and ends so.

It is infinite.

If you have an infinity to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

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Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy is a book I always mean to read but never do.  I know it well enough without reading it.  it’s a mid eighteenth century novel with the feel of modernist literature. Stearne makes the sort of clever literary jokes that appear in books by Borges, Calvino or Will Self.  I still haven’t read Tristram, but driving down to Gower a few weeks ago I listened to the Naxos audio book, and although I found myself losing the thread (it was a beautiful journey, one the best weekends of the year so far) I managed to dip in and out of it enough to feel I had some of the sense of Stearne’s language.

I’d planned to meet my friend Neil in Gower, where we would walk the cliffs, drink the Gower Gold Ale, and try in vain to get to Goat’s Cave, Paviland, the oldest surviving ritual burial in the UK.  The Red Lady of Paviland (actually a man) is 30,000 years old, and his bones lie in Cardiff museum, on loan from the Ashmolean, Oxford.  Goat’s Cave, then is one the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, but is largely unknown.  I got very wet trying to get to it, and gave up after realising I could well kill myself trying to scramble across a vertical cliff some hundred feet above the rocks.

Intrigued by Tristram Shandy – and having enjoyed it more for listening to it on a journey through some startling landscape, when I returned home I bought Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon slip in and out of character, pausing to describe events inside and outside the story, but this isn’t Steve Coogan discussing the movie he’s in, it’s Coogan playing a version of himself, of course.  The film weaves the layers of fiction together into a warm, gentle comedy.

As a result of the success of the film, Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom went on to make The Trip, the duo once again consciously playing themselves, eating their way across the north of England (and, indeed Yorkshire, location of Shandy Hall).

Neil and I ate out once, in the Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc, Gower, but it was very, very disappointing, and if it wasn’t for the cuckoo we could hear as we returned to the car, it would have been quite miserable.

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Subliminal

Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal details research that demonstrates how susceptible we are to unconscious messages. Perhaps the most astonishing example he gives is of the power teachers’ expectation: when a teacher is told a certain group of average pupils are brilliant, after eight months 80% of these pupils show an increase of 10 IQ points, with 20% of this group gaining an incredible 30 or more IQ points.  Therefore labelling pupils as gifted is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  When we consider how, in Wales, for example, the education minister has decided that all pupils from Y2 onwards will sit literacy and numeracy tests, the results of which will be reported to parents, it is likely that many low achieving pupils will stagnate, as their disappointed mums or dads confirm to their children that they are not that clever after all.  Furthermore, after reading G for Genes (see review) I am convinced that reporting test scores to parents on such a narrow range of accomplishments (ie literacy and numeracy) rather than emphasizing a child’s potential, is extremely destructive.

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G is for Genes

G is for Genes, by Kathryn Asbury and Robert Plomin, makes a very strong case for something most teachers, and probably many parents, know already. Children are not blank slates.  Young people inherit as much as 60 – 70% of their aptitude for maths, for example.  Asbury and Plomin’s book makes a nonsense of successive education ministers’ attempts to expect state schools to compete with public schools when the latter are able to select pupils by ability.  Furthermore some pupils achieve despite attending a poor school, and some will never achieve even if with the very best teaching.  So what is the answer? A more diverse curriculum, one that does not expect the same from every pupil.

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The Day It All Changed

When I was a young I knew animals had souls. I was a thug until around the age of seven or eight, and had, until then spent far too long devising sinister tortures for wasps and minnows.  I won’t detail them here, I am not proud of what I did. But I had a dog, which we put into kennels when we went on holiday, and when we returned it was dead. I was inconsolable. I thought of my dog, a sweet little Sheltie pup, and imagined it pining for us, wondering why it had been abandoned.  I thought it of it as retribution for all the horrors I had inflicted on tiny creatures.  I became protective of all living things, of the smallest creatures, even of plants.  I took it a step too far with my feelings for inanimate objects, and in sensing their natures, began to understand where the temptation to hoard comes from.  The universe, some say, is cold and ruthless.  Life is an aberration.  I live with that, but at the same time I can’t help but marvel at life, at being, at what we are and what we make of the world around us.

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The Art of Wandering

Every Good Friday, when I was a child, friends and I used to walk the ten miles or so to the top of Twm Barlwm, a mountain dominating the reclaimed marshlands of south Wales.  In my imagination, uncorrupted by historical detail, this is where the Celts stood fast, watching over the slow encroachment of Romans stationed in the fort of Caerleon, just below.  It was a mountain of war, and later, in my teens, I witnessed real battles as gangs from nearby towns fought with chains and axes, as determined as the Celts and the Romans not to give an inch.  I watched these events from the safety of the ferns, and sometime later, when the gangs had gone, returned with my dog to wander along the mountain’s spine, to the strange mound at its summit. From there, under the steel grey sky, it felt as if all of the world, and the future, was spread out before me.

Arthur Machen’s Hill of Dreams is a book based on his boyhood love of Twm Barlwm, and Machen’s later work, particularly his London Adventure is a hike through the demi-monde of Edwardian London.  He was a flaneur who perfected the art of wandering.  He wanders London as he wandered the Welsh hills.  When, in my early twenties, I followed Machen’s footsteps and moved from south Wales to west London, I worked hard at being a flaneur.  I loved strolling aimlessly through the leafy suburbs, and in the city I adored the river’s muddy allure.  But I didn’t get to be a seriously good at it, I was Welsh boy in Dr Martens. I didn’t have the style.

After my own decade and a half of London adventure, I moved back to Wales, this time away from the industrial south and into the central wilderness. Here I crave nothing more than to be rambling in the mountains, getting closer to the clouds, and sometimes above them.

I tend to walk with a small bunch of serious hikers. These people have all the kit, the Nordic poles, heavy duty water bottles, stainless steel thermos flasks. They study maps. Some of them have beards.  They are not wanderers, they are athletes. Usually these walks take six hours or so, and often cover twenty miles.  We struggle up steep slopes and spill over and down them again.

We usually start in a car park and at some point manage to find a pub, often an ancient, hidden place, a few dating back to the thirteenth century, some even earlier.  I’ve come upon remote hillside churches with eerie murals, like Death wielding a shovel, or St George slaying what I supposed was a dragon but which looked more like a giant, angry sparrow.  I know the twisted spine of Cwmyoy, and the tumbling, secluded magic of Llanthony and Tintern.

Most of my fellow hikers have travelled this way before, and they know the stories.  Up high in the mountains I’ve seen the wreck of a Wellington bomber that lost its way in the fog; the caves where the Chartists hid their weapons as they planned revolution.  There’s the poet’s chair, and the grave of a famous racehorse. There are standing stones, remnants of Iron Age forts, terraced ramparts, a hermit’s cell.  I’ve looked across the plains of Herefordshire and seen the blue remembered hills of Shropshire.  Look south and there’s the Severn, glinting.

I like writers who are walkers: Rosseau, Wordsworth, Machen, Bruce Chatwin, WG Sebald.  Wandering has a great pedigree. In their books one phrase reappears time after time: solvitur ambulando – you can solve it by walking.  After hiking all day whatever problems you have disappear, and the simple pleasures of sandwiches, or a flask of tea, with the land spinning about you, miles and miles of it, on and on, never ending, whisk all worldly cares up into the clouds, to be lost forever in the vast ancient wilderness.

 

n.b. this originally appeared in the Awfully Big Adventure Blog.

 

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