It took me three months to wade through Robert Fagles’ 600 page translation of the Iliad. There were days when, exhausted, like the warriors, I felt I could not go on. It is brutal, graphic and relentless in its description of how one after another of the men are slaughtered, and, as each one falls, he is named and often his family and origins recorded in excrutiating detail. Yet something compelled me on. There is Achilles, the loner, a romantic human figure among the automatons, the one whose rage begins the book. There are the gods, whose arguments change the course of the war and whose voices act like the consciences of the protagonists. There is the music of the verse, because this is epic poetry, and whether Homer was the sole author, or whether it is the work of generations, there is a rhythm to the narrative, woven out of repetition, it riffs like jazz, it thunders like techno. Phrases like ‘wine dark sea’ ‘grain giving earth’ and ‘unharvestable sea’ appear again and again, like a chant that lulls the reader into the landscape of the beached ships, the citadel on the horizon, shimmering in the heat. In The Mighty Dead Adam Nicolson contends that the origin of the Iliad can be traced back to as early as 1700 BCE, to the ancestral homeland of Achilles, the steppes between the Caspian and Black seas. We know the Trojan Wars took place in the Bronze Age, just before the mysterious collapse of many eastern Mediterranean civilisations, so the Iliad may have travelled hundreds of years before it was commited into writing by the man we know as Homer. No other work of European literature can claim such a formidably long gestation, so it is no wonder deep and ancient tradition, a civilisation long lost, ‘floats all through the songs like dust through air.’ Fagles’ translation is stunning, and finding my way through it, continually cross referencing protagonists, place names and gods has been one of the most profound experiences of my reading life.
Category Archives: books
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.